NC Board of Elections appoints new executive director with party line vote; agency counsel resigns

By Melissa Boughton , NC Policy Watch

The State Board of Elections has named Karen Brinson Bell as the new executive director of the agency, expectedly marking the end of Kim Strach’s tenure.

Members voted 3-2 along party lines during a teleconference to make the change and had a contentious discussion, with the two Republicans asserting their support to keep Strach as head of the agency for continuity and public trust. That discussion was interrupted briefly due to a fire alarm at the physical State Board building downtown, and the vote was taken not long after.

Strach will continue her service through the end of May. Bell will move to Raleigh from Charleston, South Carolina to start as executive director June 1.

“Kim has been a great investigator, but we need a change in our focus to election administration moving forward,” said Chairman Bob Cordle.

Shortly after the decision, the State Board’s general counsel, Josh Lawson resigned effective May 31. He wrote in a letter (posted at the end of this article) that no member sought his resignation, but it was clear he didn’t approve of the change.

“Choices shape democracy, and yours have outsized effect in our State,” he wrote. “This agency serves voters best when it chooses accountability over complacency, people over partisanship, and the future over our past. These serious times require nothing less, as you confront real and growing threats to elections security, public trust, and the democratic process.”

It’s not yet clear who will replace Lawson.

Karen Brinson Bell

Brinson Bell currently serves as deputy director of the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, a nonprofit organization specializing in ranked choice voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference.

Gary Bartlett, who was at the helm of the State Board for 20 years before Strach, runs the organization. It’s not known how she became a candidate for the top job at the State Board or if there was a nomination process.

Brinson Bell, 44, previously served four years as Elections Director for Transylvania County in North Carolina and five years with the NC State Board of Elections voting systems division, according to her online biography. During her tenure, she helped administer instant runoff elections for the City of Hendersonville in 2007 and 2009, a district court election in 2010 and a statewide election for a North Carolina Court of Appeals seat in 2010.

Cordle cited Brinson Bell’s county director experience as part of the reason for her appointment — she is believed to be the first executive director who has previously held the county director title. He said the State Board needs to prepare properly for the 2020 election, adding that some have referred to it as the biggest of a generation.

He went over all the details of what makes elections large undertakings and discussed the level of coordination that has to be maintained between the state and county boards.

“We need there to be a consistency in the way these elections are carried out,” he said. “It’s a large task, and to be a success requires detailed planning, coordination, training, knowledge and focus. I believe with Karen Brinson Bell, we found someone with the experience, skill and expertise needed to make sure that our elections are run smoothly and efficiently as possible.”

Brinson Bell, he added, has had a large variety of election experience and computer software experience.

Cordle also spent some time praising Strach for her work at the State Board. She has been at the helm of the agency for six years but has worked there for two decades. She was appointed to the top job by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

“Now, none of what I’ve said about Karen and our need to change focus at the State Board is to take away from the great work Kim Strach has done in her approximately 19 years at the State Board,” he said.

He described the trying and unusual times Strach had to navigate, including managing with and without a State Board during litigation between Gov. Roy Cooper and GOP legislative leaders about the agency’s structure.

“During all of this turmoil, Kim kept the election ship afloat,” Cordle said.

The culmination of her work, he said, was with the evidentiary hearing in the 9th congressional district in which she presented evidence of “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced” absentee ballot fraud. It is reported, he added, to be the only congressional race overturned, and Strach is chiefly responsible for that.

Cordle’s Republican colleagues, Ken Raymond and David Black, also commended Strach for her work on the 9th congressional district investigation and for keeping and maintaining trust with Republicans and Democrats across the state.

“Because of the actions that our Board took regarding the NC09 congressional race, we will be under constant national scrutiny for how we conduct [the 2020] election,” Black said. “As Ken said, Kim has been tenacious in going after both sides when it came to what she believed was breaking the law. In fact, she did not see party, but what she saw was the law.”

He and Raymond both pointed out the political implications of replacing Strach and said there would be public trust lost in that process without a compelling reason for such a big management change at the top.

“This is not a position that should be bounced back and forth like a ping pong ball,” Black said.

Raymond said he did not believe Cordle’s reasons for appointing Brinson Bell weren’t compelling enough and said the decision appeared purely political. He added that the move would send the message that fairness from the executive director’s office is not a priority.

Cordle told him he was entitled to his opinions.

At the end of the meeting, the State Board voted unanimously to make a resolution honoring Strach for her work.

Brinson Bell will oversee about 70 State Board employees, according to a news release. The Raleigh-based Board of Elections is charged with administering elections and overseeing 100 county boards of elections, as well as campaign finance disclosure and compliance.

Her first day on the job will be June 3, and her two-year term will expire in May 2021.

“Our top priorities will be promoting voter confidence in elections and assisting the 100 county boards, the boots on the ground in every election,” Brinson Bell said in the release. “I plan to roll up my sleeves and work with State Board staff to prepare for the important elections ahead.”

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