North Carolina’s capital is a place where Republicans battle with Democrats, but since Republicans took full control of the General Assembly, the Supreme Court and the governor’s office, that conflict has changed. Instead of Republicans against Democrats, it’s Republicans colliding with democracy.
Republican candidates and lawmakers used the district maps and election laws drawn and written by Democrats in the majority to ascend to power, but they’ve thrown out both to keep it. Political gamesmanship is to be expected, especially when a party takes full control of the state after more than a century. But what Republican lawmakers have done – and Gov. Pat McCory has abetted – goes well beyond settling scores or tilting the electoral landscape in their favor.
Instead, they’ve made a hash of the state’s electoral process. They’ve gerrymandered the state’s districts to a new extreme, passed laws to suppress the vote and turned what were once nonpartisan state Supreme Court elections into expensive, highly charged partisan fights.
“It’s a nutty time all around with the confusing laws that are also changing with the litigation,” said Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. He says the problems won’t begin to clear until the General Assembly agrees to use a nonpartisan method for redistricting.
Evidence of the confusion was plain in Tuesday’s election. It was a delayed congressional primary because a court rejected the legislature’s gerrymandered maps and new ones weren’t drawn by the March primary. Most voters didn’t bother coming out for a second primary vote. Statewide, only 7.6 percent of voters cast a ballot.
While there were few voters, there was an overflow of candidates in the 13th Congressional District where, because of the need for a second primary, the legislature suspended the usual runoff requirement if no candidate gets more the 40 percent of the vote. The district’s Republican primary included 17 candidates. Ted Budd won the nomination with 20 percent of the vote. Democracy is messy, but this race was more like a demolition derby.
On the statewide ballot was another delayed vote caused by the legislature’s clumsy attempt to keep conservatives in control of the state Supreme Court. The legislature approved having incumbent Supreme Court justices face only an up or down retention vote in November instead of a regular election as required by the state constitution. A three-judge panel rejected the law, forcing a vote to winnow four candidates to two in an isolated election sure to draw single-digit turnout. Incumbent Bob Edmunds finished first, and Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan finished second. They will face off in November.
Meanwhile, state election law and maps continue to be entangled in state and federal legal challenges. A federal court has suspended provisions of the new election law banning same-day registration and out of precinct voting pending a ruling on the legality of the changes passed by the legislature.
The voter advocacy group Democracy NC found that 29,000 North Carolinans would not have had their votes counted in the March presidential primary if the suspended provisions had been in place.
With challenges to the legislature’s changes in voting law and district lines pending, yet more electoral disruption could be in store for North Carolina before November’s election.