Potentially sweeping changes to state election laws introduced Tuesday, just days before the legislature is scheduled to adjourn, failed to clear a key House committee when the Republican chairman failed to count heads before calling for a vote.
When it became clear there were not enough Republicans in the room to carry the measure, Chairman David Lewis voted with the Democrats against his own amendment so that he could be on the prevailing side. Under House rules, that will allow Lewis to hold reconsideration vote later tonight or Wednesday, when there will presumably be enough Republicans in the room to push the measure through to a vote on the House floor.
"Quite frankly, I just miscounted," said Lewis, a farm-equipment dealer from Dunn, moments after his proposed changes failed 10-13.
As introduced in the House committee Tuesday evening, Senate Bill 47 pulls together elements of several Republican-backed measures that Democrats said are designed to hold-down voter turnout, especially among low-income and elderly voters.
"It stinks," said Bob Hall, the executive director of Democracy North Carolina. "It's a stinker. It should sink to the bottom. It's a conglomeration of things to make voting harder."
The bill, as proposed in the House committee Tuesday, would:
— End public financing for council of state races.
— End non-partisan judicial races and introduce partisan primaries for judges.
— Make it a crime to accept pay to work as part of a voter registration drive.
— Cut the period for early, one-stop voting by one week.
— Repeal straight-ticket voting.
— Allows corporations to make donations directly to political parties for "headquarters funds."
Lewis said the corporate money would be limited to paying for party headquarters buildings and maintenance. But clean elections advocates and Democrats said the provision, as written, would allow corporate money to pay for such party functions as polling, hiring campaign consultants and such "voter education" efforts as direct mail and media advertising.
No public comment was allowed during Tuesday's meeting.
Asked why, after the legislature has been in session for more than four months, fundamental changes were being added at the last minute, Lewis said canceled committee meetings and member absences had caused delays.
"I share everyone's frustration," the committee chairman said. "I wish there was a better way."
Hall said the last-minute nature of the changes were intended to limit the time opponents had to organize.
"The Republicans promised to run this place differently," he said. "They promised transparency. Unfortunately, it does look like they're doing the same things they complained for years about Democrats doing."