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Lawmakers Should Take Care When Changing Watchdogs

By Damon Circosta

RALEIGH - Members of the N.C. General Assembly have left town for a while, but they are coming back to Raleigh in July for a “mini-session” to redraw state legislative maps and to also take up matters related to how elections are conducted in our state.

This limited session is somewhat unusual. Typically lawmakers operate at a more measured pace. But in the space of just a few days, legislators are poised to consider sweeping changes to our elections and the entities that regulate our political system.

They will be doing this while they are also engaged in the once-in-a-decade process of redistricting, or the redrawing of political boundaries. Historically, the redistricting process gets so partisan and heated that it can monopolize our state lawmakers for months.

Significant changes to how elections are conducted and who is in charge of regulating them is not something to rush. The possibility of political mischief is high. But even if everything is on the up and up, hastily making major changes could create some unintended consequences.

Take, for example, the various proposals that deal with reorganizing the numerous boards and offices that must keep an eye on the political types. Currently there are three distinct organizations in state government that watch over our political process: the State Board of Elections oversees elections and campaign finance rules; the secretary of state keeps an eye on lobbyists; and the State Ethics Commission monitors both appointed and elected public officials.

All of these offices are bound to have some overlap, and in these times of austere budgets it might make sense to consolidate some of these functions to achieve cost savings. But more is at work here than just simply rearranging the boxes of state government. Each of these bodies is responsible to various political actors with their own political agenda.

To be sure, there needs to be some reform when it comes to who controls the organizations that watch over our political process, but such reform is more complicated than sticking all of these functions in one office and calling it a day. Some serious consideration needs to be given to who this new entity would report to, what processes they would use to conduct their business and what level of autonomy they would have from the politicians who are responsible for appointing them.

Right now the State Ethics Commission, with its truly bipartisan board of directors appointed from across state government, is the best model to ensure that politics doesn’t creep into the process. Any conversation should begin with making sure that a new entity has a board of directors that is as free from political influence as possible. From there we need to ensure that consolidation doesn’t undermine these offices from adequately investigating wrongdoing and regulating the elections process.

While cost savings are important, we wouldn’t want to cut the staffs of these agencies to the point where they cannot function. Also, some thought needs to be given to the timing of these proposed changes. On the heels of one of the most contentious legislative sessions in years and just months before election 2012, we need to make sure there is no disruption of service from these very important state agencies.

Rethinking the role of our political watchdogs is a good idea. An even better idea would be not to rush these changes through at the same time all sorts of other election laws are being considered. Doing so would be like trying to pick who we want to be the referee before we even know what sport is being played. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Damon Circosta is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.