State Politics

NC House backs political party labels for local judicial races

Two Wake county voters in foreground leave the early voting precinct while others wait in line to vote, background, outside of the Herbert C. Young Community Center early voting site in Cary, NC Friday, March 11, 2016.
Two Wake county voters in foreground leave the early voting precinct while others wait in line to vote, background, outside of the Herbert C. Young Community Center early voting site in Cary, NC Friday, March 11, 2016. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The N.C. House voted 65-51 Wednesday to make elections for District Court and Superior Court judges partisan.

Six Republicans joined nearly all Democrats in voting against the proposal. The bill now heads to the Senate.

If it becomes law, District and Superior Court judicial candidates would need to go through a party primary, and general election ballots would include the candidates’ party affiliations. Candidates who aren’t registered with a political party would need to go through a petition process to get their names on the ballot.

Superior Court elections were switched from partisan to nonpartisan in 1996, and state leaders made the same change for District Court in 2001.

Republicans supporting the bill say it would give voters much-needed information about the candidates. Rep. Larry Yarborough of Roxboro said many voters only have the details that appear on ballots in low-profile races: The candidate’s name and party.

“By not having the party affiliation, you’re cutting out 50 percent of the information that most voters would use to make their choices,” Yarborough said.

Supporters of the bill have also pointed out that political parties already make endorsements in judicial races and distribute voter guides with their picks.

But Rep. Joe John – a Raleigh Democrat who previously served as a judge in District Court, Superior Court and the state Court of Appeals – said the switch to partisan elections would harm the judicial branch. He said the bill “threatens to blur the fine line between the sacred independence of our judicial branch and the raw, red meat of partisan politics.”

“The system is not broken, Mr. Speaker, and it has worked well for years,” he added.

The House voted in favor of an amendment from Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, to lower the number of petition signatures required for unaffiliated judge candidates seeking to get their names on the ballot.

GOP legislators have proposed similar bills for partisan elections in recent sessions, and they succeeded in making N.C. Court of Appeals races partisan for the first time last year. Republicans won all seats available on the Court of Appeals in November, while Democrat Mike Morgan won a nonpartisan race for N.C. Supreme Court. In a post-election special session, lawmakers made Supreme Court races partisan, too.

The proposal on judicial races isn’t the only legislation calling for more partisan elections. Senate Bill 94, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ronald Rabin of Harnett County, would require partisan elections for school boards and municipal offices like mayor and town council as well as judicial races. That bill hasn’t yet been scheduled for a hearing.

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