First meeting dims hopes for bipartisan elections board
Democrats have secured an effective 5-4 advantage on the newly configured state board overseeing N.C. elections. Voters will have to wait to see whether that advantage translates into partisan election-related policies.
Based on the new group’s first meeting, prospects are dim for a truly Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.
Ever since December 2016, the Republican-led General Assembly has been trying to put together a version of a bipartisan board to oversee state elections and ethics issues. Courts shot down the first two versions of the newly merged board. The third, current version continues to face a legal challenge from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Nonetheless, recent court rulings enabled the new board to meet for the first time Wednesday, March 21. The board features four Democrats and four Republicans. Cooper appointed each member, though state law constrained his choices. Cooper was required to choose from lists of six names submitted by each of the major political parties’ state branches.
Those appointments did not fill the board. The first item of business for new board members focused on compiling two names of “unaffiliated” voters to submit to Cooper. The governor would choose one of those names to serve as the ninth member of the bipartisan board.
Three Republican board members signaled two days before the meeting that they preferred to open the selection process. In a letter to state elections staff, the Republicans suggested delaying a vote for a week and publicizing the open board position.
Once the meeting started, Democrats showed no interest in that idea. Joshua Malcolm, who had served on the previous state elections board, explained that a tight election timeline before the May primary made him unwilling to delay a vote on the potential ninth board member.
After Malcolm and fellow Democrats shot down Republicans’ plans for a more open process, three names ended up emerging as potential nominees. While nominally unaffiliated, all three had closer ties to Democrats than Republicans.
Former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell had cast a ballot in the 2016 Republican primary. But that was an anomaly. Mitchell had been appointed to the state’s highest-ranking judicial post by Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt in late 1994 and ran a successful 1996 campaign as a Democrat to keep the seat. He resigned from the post in 1999, giving Hunt the chance to appoint another Democrat as chief justice.
Longtime N.C. General Assembly staffer Gerry Cohen had been registered as a Democrat for 47 years until he was approached to seek the unaffiliated position on the new elections board. Cohen changed his party affiliation one day before the board meeting.
Despite his longstanding Democratic ties, Cohen’s legislative work and institutional knowledge had earned respect from leading Republican legislators. Since the GOP took over the General Assembly in 2011, Cohen frequently defended legislative leaders’ procedural actions — even when those actions conflicted with Cohen’s own policy preferences.
Damon Circosta serves as executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. Along with nonpolitical charitable causes, the Fletcher organization helps bankroll left-of-center political groups. In a previous job, Circosta led the N.C. Center for Voter Education, now a part of left-of-center activist group Common Cause. Republican critics noted the voter education center’s role as a founding member of Blueprint NC. Blueprint won infamy in 2013 when the public read its confidential anti-Republican legislative strategy, which called for “crippling” and “eviscerating” GOP leaders.
Circosta also served in 2006 as re-election campaign manager for Democratic N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Robert C. “Bob” Hunter. That race was officially nonpartisan, though Hunter defeated a Republican opponent in the general election.
Votes during the March 21 meeting made clear that Democratic board members preferred Circosta among the three choices. They were unwilling to accept any outcome unless it included Circosta’s name among the two nominees.
The board deadlocked, 4-4, when Democrats first put forward Circosta and Cohen as the two names to submit to Cooper. Democrats then objected to Republicans’ offer to support Cohen in a standalone vote.
A Republican board member then offered Mitchell’s name as an alternative to Circosta. The board split, 4-4, on a slate of Cohen and Mitchell.
With their united “no” votes, Democrats had just rejected a pair of highly qualified “unaffiliated” voters with longstanding Democratic credentials. Republicans had supported both former Democrats unanimously. So much for bipartisanship.
While Republicans initially balked at the pairing of Circosta and Mitchell, they eventually agreed to that compromise. No one was surprised when Cooper appointed Circosta later that day.
The newest elections board member told the Raleigh News & Observer it’s “categorically not true” that he will provide a reliable vote for Democratic positions on the new board. Instead, Circosta wants to “make sure the election system is accessible, secure, efficient, and, above all, fair.”
Republicans have good reasons to remain skeptical. Democratic board members have offered no evidence of a willingness to compromise — even when Republican colleagues presented the gift of a slate of two respected, qualified former Democrats to fill the board’s critical ninth seat.
One can hope those same Democrats will prove more open to Republican input as the nine-member board starts its real work.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.