This year, voters will decide whether to pass a constitutional amendment requiring a truly bipartisan board of elections and ethics enforcement.

Here’s why you should vote “yes.”

The Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement is responsible for administering elections and adjudicating campaign finance violations. Under current law, the board has nine members: four Democrats, four Republicans and one person who is not registered in either major party.

In theory, that ninth “unaffiliated” member sounds nice — when both parties are at loggerheads over a partisan issue, he or she should cast the tie-breaking vote based solely on the merits.

In reality, the current “unaffiliated” member is just a rubber stamp for the Democrats. He regularly sides with Democrats in split votes.

That’s a problem.

Running elections and investigating campaign finance violations should be fully insulated from partisan considerations. The public must have faith that their elections systems aren’t rigged to favor one party over another. Similarly, one political party with more power than the other on a board that investigates political campaigns is ripe for potential conflicts.

Opponents of this amendment argue that an equal number of Republicans and Democrats would result in stalemates and inaction.

But the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), as well as the U.S. House and Senate Committees on Ethics, all operate under an even power-sharing arrangement between the two major parties. They work as they’re supposed to — disingenuous political accusations are shuffled to the side, while legitimate ethical and campaign finance allegations undergo impartial investigations.

Amendment opponents also argue, oddly, that a bipartisan board could somehow bury crimes. But precisely the opposite is true: A board evenly split between the parties would be in a better position to advance legitimate violations through the process, free from charges of partisan chicanery. And any member of the board has the power at any time to send up a flare if something seems rotten.

We should adopt the same system as the FEC and Congress here in North Carolina. To argue otherwise is to say one party deserves more power than the other in administering elections and adjudicating campaign finance claims. It’s just plain wrong.

Even worse, a board weighted toward one party has the power to sway elections simply by acting on a pending campaign finance question, even long-dormant claims with no merit. This is especially true as we get closer to November.

Many fundraising complaints are partisan nonsense — a political hack can fire off a baseless allegation to the board and then issue a press release saying a political opponent is under investigation. There’s not a clear way to stop that from happening.

But a partisan board has the power to hear any complaint at any time — even right before Election Day. The board could take action on a minor or superfluous allegation in the run-up to the election, and could even vote to refer a matter to prosecutors regardless of the evidence.

A candidate subject to this dirty trick would have no time to tell voters the truth. His or her political opponents would seize on the actions of the “bipartisan” board and paint the accused as corrupt, no matter how weak or flawed the actual allegations might be. The mere discussion could ruin lives. In today’s inflamed political climate, we’ve seen just how dangerous mere allegations can be.

And consider this possibility in the context of who usually fills out campaign fundraising disclosures: volunteers or even family members with no legal experience. If you entered politics and your volunteer treasurer made a mistake, wouldn’t you want a fair shot in front of an impartial board?

We’re confident that decent people wouldn’t pull such an underhanded scheme, but the board as currently constituted very well could.

What’s more, such a possibility undermines the long-standing tradition in this country of investigators avoiding actions that could influence the outcome of an election. The U.S. Department of Justice imposes a de facto moratorium on investigatory disclosures within 60 days of an election. The same principles should apply to a quasi-investigative organization like the board, but it’s much easier to ignore such best practices when the board has a partisan tilt.

That’s why a truly bipartisan board of elections and ethics enforcement is the most prudent policy. Political stunts that undermine the public’s trust would be much more difficult to pull off.

An evenly split, bipartisan board is the only way to go. Your friends and neighbors deserve nothing less.

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Sen. Harry Brown (R-Onslow) serves District 6. Sen. Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston) serves District 43.

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