The N.C. House Elections Committee voted Tuesday to place political party labels next to the names of candidates in school board races and statewide judicial elections, while making candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run together on a single ticket.
The votes on three separate elections bills were mostly along party lines, with Democrats opposing each of the changes. The bills could go to the full House as soon as Wednesday afternoon.
Rep. Bert Jones,a Reidsville Republican, sponsored the bill on judicial races and said voters struggle to pick judicial candidates without the party labels on the ballot.
About 500,000 voters skipped the Court of Appeals contest in the last election, he said.
His bill would add party labels to ballots in the N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals contests. It would leave District Court and Superior Court judicial races unchanged. It passed on a 17-11 vote, with Democratic opposition.
“As somebody that has been involved in politics for a long time, the main question I hear from citizens is ‘tell me something about the judges,’” Jones said, adding that he thinks the current system isn’t actually nonpartisan. “I think we all know in our hearts that that’s not true. Both political parties are out there stumping for their candidates, giving out their information at the polls.”
But Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, said he worries that more partisanship in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals could affect how they handle legal challenges to legislation.
“I think it’s a bad idea for anybody sitting there with a partisan interest, voting on bills by a partisan General Assembly,” he said.
Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, has been involved in recruiting judicial candidates. He says the low-information nonpartisan races mean candidates are judged by their name – “how English it was, where it appeared on the alphabet.” Stam said he once sought a candidate whose name would appear higher on the ballot than a judge named Arrowood.
Stam said the current judicial primary system – in which the two top candidates continue on to the general election – sometimes results in two Democrats or two Republicans on the fall ballot. That typically happens when one party has higher primary turnout than the other.
Republicans also backed a bill making school board races across the state partisan. Some school districts already have partisan elections, but many – including Wake and other Triangle counties – keep them nonpartisan.
The bill sponsor, Republican Rep. George Cleveland of Jacksonville, said school boards aren’t nonpartisan in reality.
“I think an individual should know when they go to vote,” he said. “We need truth in advertising. The electorate needs to know who they’re voting for philosophically.”
Cleveland’s bill drew opposition from some Republicans who’d voted for partisan judicial elections an hour before, and a voice vote on the bill was closely split, with Jones ruling that yes votes made up a majority. Stam said the decision to go partisan should be left up to each county.
“To do this to Wake County would just be more excitement than I could tolerate,” he said. “I think that’s true of half the state.”
Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat, served on her nonpartisan school board before joining the House. “The most refreshing thing about my service on that board was that it was nonpartisan,” she said. “I think we need to leave partisanship outside the door of our schools.”
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Republican Rep. Debra Conrad of Winston-Salem, said partisan school board races work well in Forsyth County. “I’ve never had a single citizen in Forsyth tell me they didn’t like partisan school board races, because it’s more information,” she said.
Another Jones bill was approved on a 16-11 vote, also with Democrats in opposition. It would make candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run as a single ticket – much the way elections for president and vice presidents are conducted. In North Carolina, those races are not linked.
Jones’ proposal would have one difference: candidates for the two offices would run separately in party primaries, with winners paired up for general elections.
“The lieutenant governor and the governor ought to be in the same party,” he said.
Michaux said the switch would harm unaffiliated candidates, who would have to form a two-candidate ticket in order to get on the ballot.
“We seem to have survived this splitting in gubernatorial-lieutenant governor ticket for quite awhile,” he said.