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The best, imperfect 12th District solution

Democrats are unhappy with N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory’s decision to schedule a November special election to fill the congressional seat formerly held by Charlotte Democrat Mel Watt. McCrory announced this month that instead of letting voters choose a replacement for Watt sooner, the special 12th District election would track with the regular election schedule, culminating in a Nov. 4 general election for Watt’s former seat.

Democrats say McCrory is playing politics by leaving the 12th District, which stretches from Greensboro to Charlotte, without a vote in the U.S. House until November. McCrory’s decision, however, is the least confusing and most responsible way to replace Watt, who was sworn in this month as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

To understand why, grab your calendar and clear your head.

Let’s say the goal is to get a replacement for Watt as soon as possible regardless of cost, as Democrats suggest. Federal law requires that ballots be available for overseas military personnel at least 45 days before each election, which in this case would be the primary, possible runoff and general election.

Allowing for a filing period, the soonest a primary for Watt’s seat could occur is March. A runoff, which is likely, could be scheduled for May 6 – the same day as the scheduled primary for the seat’s two-year term. (Remember, a special election only fills Watt’s seat until Jan. 2015.) The general “special” election would be held in mid-July, which is also the date reserved for a runoff in the non-special election.

Confused yet? It might get worse for some at the polls. With this hypothetical approach, voters would be choosing a runoff winner between two special election candidates on the same day they’re picking among primary candidates for the regular election. Yes, McCrory’s solution also calls for voters to vote twice for the same seat, but at least they’re voting on the same day for both primaries, runoffs and general elections.

So why not lessen confusion by scheduling a stand-alone special primary, runoff and general elections, as some Democrats recommend? That would require voters to head to the polls as many as six times to vote between now and November. Plus, it would cost taxpayers more than $1 million to hold and tally the separate votes, according to the state board of elections.

That’s a lot of money for little representation. Democrats, including Congressmen David Price and G.K. Butterfield, argue that McCrory’s special election plan would leave District 12 without representation for more than 300 days. That’s disingenuous. At worst, the difference between McCrory’s solution and the July date for the alternative approaches is about four months.

What’s lost in those four months? Not much. Although Watt has left office, his staff remains at work, so constituent services won’t be affected by McCrory’s special election plan. As for the lack of representation in a reliably Democratic district – it’s highly unlikely that the U.S. House, which has a 16-vote Republican majority, will face a situation in which the missing 12th District vote would have been a deciding factor on an issue between July and November this year.

That’s not enough to justify the $1 million-plus cost of a quicker, stand-alone special election. McCrory’s solution, while not ideal, is the best of bad choices.

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