Ned Barnett

As NC independents grow, GOP stresses party labels for judges

A trio of Superior Court Judges (from left) Todd Burke, Judge Jesse Caldwell and Judge Jeffrey Foster listen to lawyers at the Wake County Courthouse in February. A new state law will change the previously nonpartisan election of superior and district court judges to partisan elections.
A trio of Superior Court Judges (from left) Todd Burke, Judge Jesse Caldwell and Judge Jeffrey Foster listen to lawyers at the Wake County Courthouse in February. A new state law will change the previously nonpartisan election of superior and district court judges to partisan elections. cliddy@newsobserver.com

North Carolina’s Republican leaders have been denounced for trying to disenfranchise African-American voters through gerrymandering and changes in election laws covering early voting, same-day registration and voter identification. But last week the GOP moved to limit the political participation of another group – unaffiliated voters.

This move came Thursday with the state Senate’s successful override of Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill that turns judicial races at the district and superior court levels from nonpartisan to partisan. The override completed the Republican effort to make judicial races partisan at all levels. The legislature ended nonpartisan races for the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court in December.

The turn to partisanship undermines the independence of the judiciary. Cooper made that point in vetoing the bill and none other than Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, declared during his confirmation hearing, “There’s no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge.”

Well, in North Carolina, there now is such a thing – from top to bottom.

Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) says the “R” or a “D” next to a judicial candidate’s name will give voters more information. But what the General Assembly also has done is damage the independence of the judiciary and discourage registered independents from serving on the bench.

While Republican or Democratic candidates need only pay a filing fee to run, unaffiliated candidates will have to present a petition signed by 2 percent of the voters in the judicial district. In addition, some judges may be forced into primaries where they will have to appeal to the more liberal or conservative side of their party, a vetting process that could lead to a polarized judiciary.

Berger thinks the change to party labels is not a departure since it reinstates the system that was in place prior to the late 1990s and early 2000s. But this change reverses a good reform and ignores the rising role of unaffiliated voters, whose ranks have grown by more than 1 million since 2000.

As of March 25, there were 2,639,134 registered Democrats, 2,046,260 registered Republicans and 2,014,641 voters registered as unaffiliated. Since March of 2013, Democratic registration has dropped by 128,000, Republicans have gained 65,654 and unaffiliated voters have soared by 357,172. From June 2008 to June 2016, North Carolina’s registered independents rose by 58.9 percent while Democratic and Republican registration climbed by 4.5 percent and 4 percent.

At this rate, unaffiliated voters will soon pass Republicans to become North Carolina’s second largest group of voters. Yet Republican lawmakers are treating them as if they are invisible. Worse yet, some would make them all but invisible not only on the benches of the state’s courtrooms, but also on elected local boards and councils.

One Republican-backed bill would require that city and town council elections and school board elections be partisan. Some local elections are partisan now, but most aren’t. There are good reasons. Local issues are worked out between neighbors and residents, not Democrats and Republicans. And partisan labels could block or discourage people from seeking office. Federal employees are barred by law from running in partisan elections. People who work for nonprofits may be wary of engaging in partisan politics.

While Berger says adding party labels to more races better informs voters, it actually ignores the wishes of a segment of voters that will soon be larger than Berger’s party. Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy NC, an election watchdog group, said the rising number of independents is sending a message of frustration with politics as usual.

“These people are saying, ‘We don’t want hard-edged partisanship. We want solutions, government that works,’ ” he said.

The Republican drive to make all branches and levels of government partisan isn’t about promoting political debate. It’s about stifling it. Adding partisan labels to judicial and local races sets up a more efficient way to channel money into them. The smaller or lower profile the race, the more money can shape its outcome, as seen in the Republicans’ success in state legislative races here and nationally.

As the party labels proliferate, independents are being shut out. Eventually, they may notice the party label behind that effort and vote accordingly.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com

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