If signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, a change in state election law approved in the final hours of the 2016 legislative session would ensure the name of Phil Berger Jr. appears first on the ballot in his race against incumbent Court of Appeals Judge Linda Stephens in November.
If not for the legislation, Berger’s name would have appeared below Stephens’ on the November ballot through a random ballot-order method used by the state Board of Elections. Berger, a Republican, is the son of state Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican. The elder Berger voted for the bill that would result in his son’s name being listed first.
Numerous studies have shown that being listed first on a ballot can give that candidate at least a slight advantage, especially on down-ballot races like the Court of Appeals race where candidates aren’t as well-known as presidential or gubernatorial candidates, for example.
“I imagine some people in the legislature are aware of those studies,” Stephens said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I guess I'll have to work extra hard to ensure the voters know who I am.”
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Stephens, a lifelong Democrat, joined the Court of Appeals in 2006 amid a career as an attorney. Berger Jr., her challenger, is an appointed administrative law judge and former Rockingham County district attorney. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014.
The law change also means that the names of the other Republican Court of Appeals candidates appear above their opponents on November ballots. Specifically, the change would list the candidates of the sitting governor’s party alphabetically first. Currently, ballot orders for partisan races are determined that way.
McCrory is a Republican — the first from his party to serve as governor since Jim Martin left office more than 23 years ago.
“Candidates running as Republicans in partisan races in a presidential year for the first time since 1992 may have an advantage from being listed first this year,” said Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger.
Court of Appeals races are technically nonpartisan, but legislation approved by the General Assembly last year requires party affiliations of Court of Appeals candidates to be listed on ballots this year.
This year’s ballot-order change for Court of Appeals races was just part of a larger bill making elections-related changes. Senate Bill 667 was stripped of its original contents and new language, including the ballot change, emerged in the House Elections Committee on June 30, the second to last day of this years short session. The bill passed the House along strict party lines that night. It passed the Senate, also along party lines, on the session’s last day.
Auth wrote in an email that the new language in Senate Bill 667 originated in the House. Asked where the ballot-order provision originated, she repeated: “The bill originated in the House.” She directed questions about the bill's drafting to the House. Phone and email messages left Tuesday for Rep. Bert Jones, a Rockingham County Republican who guided the bill through the House, weren't immediately returned.