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Cooper vetoes GOP bill that sought to weaken AG’s powers

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH — North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a measure Monday that would have limited the powers of the person in his former position — attorney general — to enter into future legal settlements. The legislation was passed by Republicans furious with Cooper’s successor over his handling of a 2020 elections lawsuit.

The measure, approved on party lines, would have required formal approval of settlements challenging state law or the constitution by the Senate leader and House speaker when they are named parties.

GOP legislators complained that Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein crossed the line when his office and the State Board of Elections reached a September 2020 agreement with a labor-affiliated group that sued over absentee ballot rules for the fall election without involving them.

Legislative Democrats have said the proposed restrictions would interfere with the legal actions of the attorney general, a named officer in the state constitution.

“This bill is unconstitutional and unwise, and would prevent the attorney general from doing his job to protect the people of North Carolina,” Cooper said in his veto message. The GOP is unlikely to have the votes to override Cooper’s veto, since they lack enough seats in either chamber for veto-proof majorities.

The 2020 legal settlement was signed off on by a judge and increased, from three to nine, the number of days mailed absentee ballots could be received after Election Day and still count. It also told absentee voters they could correct problems with witness information without filling out a new ballot.

The nine-day window remained in place after the settlement was appealed by Senate leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and President Donald Trump’s campaign all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Absentee ballot rules were a key flashpoint in closely divided North Carolina as the voting format became widely popular during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stein, who also previously criticized the measure, was first elected attorney general in 2016, succeeding Cooper, who had served on the job for 16 years before running successfully for governor. Stein, a potential 2024 gubernatorial candidate, was Cooper’s consumer protection division chief for several years.

Republican legislators have said the measure was designed to prevent future “collusive settlements” in which the attorney general agrees to concessions with a litigant that is actually not a legal adversary.

“This bill is necessary to keep corrosive, secretly negotiated rule changes out of future elections,” Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican and bill sponsor, said in a news release after the veto. “Gov. Cooper just deepened distrust in the electoral process at a time when we should focus on improving it.”

Stein and the state board strongly disagree with GOP arguments that the settlement was contrived to help Democrats in the election. Board Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell told senators months ago that the board has the power to settle lawsuits, and that doing so in 2020 prevented more expansive voting changes from occurring. Democrats currently hold a board majority.

Cooper has now vetoed 11 bills this year. None of those previous vetoes have been overridden. Cooper is by far the most prolific user of the veto stamp since that gubernatorial power began in 1997. He has issued 64 vetoes since early 2017, according to General Assembly records.

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