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Cooper to appoint North Carolina elections board this week

RALEIGH (AP) North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper will appoint members to a combined state elections and ethics board this week, even while he continues to fight in court over the legality of the board’s latest iteration.

Cooper’s office announced the decision March 14, two days before a new law approved by Republicans last month creating a nine-member panel is supposed to take effect.

The Democratic governor has sued GOP legislative leaders three times — the latest lawsuit coming March 13 — over legislation creating different versions of the joint board. The first lawsuit was filed in December 2016, just before Cooper got sworn in.

A state board administering elections and campaign finance laws has been vacant since last June while the constitutionality of the combination board has been litigated. While election board staff performed their duties, policy decisions got delayed and contested municipal election results had to be settled by judges.

Since the latest lawsuit is likely to take months, “it is important to have a board in place for the time being to administer the upcoming elections,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a release.

The lack of a sitting board also meant boards of elections in a quarter of the state’s 100 counties currently don’t have enough members to conduct business, such as approving early-voting sites for the May 8 primary elections. That’s because the state board appoints county board members.

Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said “it’s about time” the appointments were made under the new board format. Republicans have criticized Cooper for the extensive litigation.

Cooper won the first two lawsuits over versions that created an eight-member board comprised of four Democrats and four Republicans.

He sued again because he argues the nine-member board — now with an additional member who can’t be registered with a major party — and other provisions still prevent him from having control over carrying out elections laws.

A state Supreme Court ruling also issued March 13 stemming from the result of the second lawsuit appeared to reduce Cooper’s chances to temporarily block the nine-member panel while the third lawsuit played out. Porter said Cooper’s lawyer told a court that it would no longer seek a hearing on its request for a temporary restraining order.

For more than a century until the late 2016 law, the majority of seats on the state elections board had been allocated to members of the sitting governor’s party. Cooper wants the board returned to the way it was because he says it’s his job to ensure election laws are carried out, and he can’t do that if less than a majority of members holds his views.

The Republicans’ latest attempt “to rig the Board of Elections and limit people’s right to vote is unconstitutional and we will continue pursuing our case,” Porter said.

Republican lawmakers have said having a bipartisan board is the better way to make election decisions.

“The governor does not have a constitutional right to the status quo, and despite his continued lawsuits, a court cannot resurrect a law that was taken off the books just because he prefers it,” Carver wrote in an email.

Cooper appoints all nine members under the new format, but he can only name up to eight initially from lists of six nominees each provided by the state Democratic and Republican parties. Cooper names the ninth from two recommendations made by the other eight members once they are seated.

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