State Politics

NC Gov. Cooper appoints an elections board member Republicans fought

Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Damon Circosta to the ninth seat on the Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.
Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Damon Circosta to the ninth seat on the Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

The four Democrats and four Republicans on the new state elections board went 'round and 'round Wednesday, casting tie vote after tie vote, as they looked for the board's ninth member.

But then they fell into an agreement to nominate former Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell and Damon Circosta, executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday evening he had appointed Circosta to the ninth seat on the Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

The wrangling on the way to agreement on two nominees reflected the long power struggle between Cooper, a Democrat, and the Republican-run legislature, which moved to change the board after Cooper won office in 2016. Cooper has sued over the changes three times, most recently this month.

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The board plays a major role in where, when and how North Carolina votes and who has control over investigating ethics complaints against lawmakers and campaigns.

The law passed last month calls for a nine-member board. The first eight members are required to choose two nominees who are not registered with either major party. Those names are passed on to Cooper, who will pick one.

Board Chairman Andy Penry said after the meeting he thought it went "pretty well."

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Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

But Dallas Woodhouse, the NC Republican Party executive director, said Republicans will talk about asking the legislature to consider a constitutional amendment to allow "a fully bipartisan board," with an even number of Democrats and Republicans.

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Republicans on the board wanted to open the application process for a ninth member for another week as a way to seek interest from around the state and not just Raleigh's political insiders. Penry said the law didn't give the board enough time to solicit more names.

Woodhouse said Democrats "rejected an open and transparent process," and it was clear they were going to adjourn the meeting unless they got what they wanted. "That's the power play they had," Woodhouse said, "but we have one, too."

Legislators would have to vote to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Woodhouse said it would win easy approval from voters, who would overwhelmingly support something called "bipartisan."

The elections board settled on Mitchell and Circosta after Republicans rejected a Democratic slate that included Circosta and Democrats rejected a Republican slate that included Mitchell.

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Burley Mitchell is a former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice. Chris Seward

Gerry Cohen, former head of the bill drafting division in the legislature, got votes from both sides at times, but was dropped from the final slate.

Cohen said he had been asked to apply and changed his party registration from Democrat to unaffiliated on Tuesday to make himself eligible.

"I didn't know if I was everyone's first choice or everyone's third choice," he said. "I'm kind of embarrassed, actually."

Before he joined the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, Circosta ran the N.C. Center for Voter Education.

In a statement, Cooper spokesman Ford Porter called Circosta a "qualified choice" who won unanimous support.

“It’s unbelievable to watch Republicans try to rig the rules of a system they’ve already gamed," Porter said.

John Lewis, a Republican elections board member and former NC GOP attorney, said in an early round of voting that he couldn't support Circosta.

"We don't believe he's going to be an independent voice," Lewis said later. "He'd be in with the Democrats."

Circosta listed on his resume work as a legal intern for Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2002. He also worked for Democrat Barack Obama's election in 2008.

In an interview before Cooper announced his choice, Circosta rejected the suggestion he'd be a reliable vote for Democratic positions.

"That's categorically not true," he said, noting that he pushed for redistricting reform when Democrats controlled the legislature and worked on elections changes that had Republican support.

Circosta said he wants to "make sure the election system is accessible, secure, efficient, and above all, fair."

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821; @Lynn_Bonner
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