Some Republican state lawmakers want North Carolina to have partisan elections for down-ballot races including local judges, town councils and school boards.
In the first few weeks of the legislative session, several bills have been filed to end nonpartisan elections for local offices.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board is currently elected in nonpartisan races – six district seats will be on the November ballot – as are Mecklenburg’s suburban municipalities. The city of Charlotte already has partisan elections.
Another bill would ask voters to create a system of partisan elections for offices that are not currently on the ballot: seats on the State Board of Education. It’s the latest proposal that would strip power from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has the authority to appoint education board members.
Opponents say the changes would inject partisanship into campaigns that don’t involve much party politics. But supporters argue that adding party labels would give voters much-needed information about the candidates and that electing State Board of Education members would give voters more influence over education policy.
Partisan judge races?
The first election-related bill to get a hearing is House Bill 100, which would make elections for District Court and Superior Court judges partisan. It’s scheduled for a vote Tuesday in the House elections committee.
If the bill 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 affiliation. Candidates who aren’t registered with a political party would need to go through a petition process to get their names on the ballot.
Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, says he often hears from voters who want to know which judicial candidate matches their political party. “I think voters want to be as informed as they can be,” he said.
Saine points out that local political parties already often endorse candidates in judicial races.
But Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat, said voters instead need information about a judicial candidate’s legal experience. “Is party registration really the most relevant information that a voter needs to make a decision on a judge?” he said.
Martin argues that the change could make courts more political. Superior Court is typically the first stop for legal challenges to state laws. He noted that Republican lawmakers often complain of “judicial activism” when their laws are struck down in court.
“If they actually believe those complaints, you’d think the last thing they’d want to do is make judges more partisan,” Martin said.
Saine, however, says concerns about activist judges are one reason to make the switch. “In an era where we have so many judges acting as legislators, if we’re going to pick judicial legislators, shouldn’t we know their party?” he said.
Partisan local races?
Partisan judicial elections are also part of a Senate bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Ronald Rabin of Harnett County. Senate Bill 94 would go beyond judicial races, requiring partisan elections for school boards and municipal offices like mayor and town council.
“Because a candidate’s political beliefs/attitudes/values system tends to influence their political decisions, transparency into that belief system affords the voters an opportunity to elect people who will represent them and their interests,” Rabin said in a written statement released Friday.
Rabin’s bill would make it difficult for school board and municipal candidates who are registered as unaffiliated. To get on the ballot, they’d have to collect signatures representing 4 percent of the people in the district they’re seeking to represent.
There’s no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole.
Bonner Gaylord, Raleigh City Councilman who is unaffiliated
Raleigh City Councilman Bonner Gaylord is unaffiliated, and he says party politics play no role in governing the city. Avoiding a party label “has allowed me to govern from the middle very successfully,” he said.
“I just am not sure how this would help cities function better,” he added. “There’s no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole.”
Rep. Susan Fisher – an Asheville Democrat who previously served on a nonpartisan, appointed school board there – said partisan elections would harm school districts. “Anytime you put politics into school boards, it doesn’t have a very good outcome,” she said.
Gaylord says a petition requirement for unaffiliated candidates would discourage qualified people from seeking city office. “I’m not willing to sign up for the full platform of either party,” he said. “People are abandoning the political parties in droves, and independents and unaffiliateds are growing substantially.”
He also opposes another bill that would move municipal elections – currently held in odd-numbered years when there’s little else on the ballot – to even-numbered years. House Bill 64 would change the date of the elections starting in 2022.
Gaylord says the local debates involved in a city council campaign would be drowned out in elections with high-profile races for president and governor.
“For the city of Raleigh, it allows a focus on our local issues in off-year elections,” he said. “It makes sure that the people who are coming out and voting are aware of the issues that our city faces.”
The bill’s primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Harry Warren of Salisbury, could not be reached to comment. But supporters of moving municipal races have said the change would increase turnout and participation. In the 2015 Raleigh mayoral election, for example, less than 13 percent of registered voters participated.
Local leaders already can try to change the timing of their municipal elections by asking their legislator for a local bill.
The N.C. League of Municipalities, which represents hundreds of cities and towns across the state, “opposes any bills that prevent local officials and the local voters to whom they answer from determining the structure of local elections,” spokesman Scott Mooneyham said.
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.
Electing the education board
Another election bill is a new proposal: elect members of the State Board of Education. Under House Bill 133, the governor would appoint the board’s chairman, and the lieutenant governor and superintendent of public instruction would continue to serve on the board.
But instead of being appointed by the governor, the other 13 members would be elected in partisan races, with one board member elected in each of the state’s congressional districts. North Carolina’s current districts are drawn in a way that has elected 10 Republicans and three Democrats to Congress.
The change would require a constitutional amendment, so voters would get to decide on the proposal during the 2018 primary if the bill passes.
In their post-election session, lawmakers made the governor’s Cabinet appointments subject to approval by the state Senate, reduced the number of political appointees he can make, cut his ability to appoint members to UNC schools’ boards of trustees, eliminated control of elections boards by the governor’s political party and moved power away from the education board to the state superintendent. Many of those changes are tied up in court.
Rep. Debra Conrad, a Winston-Salem Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the idea makes sense because local school boards are already elected positions. Voters “would really appreciate the opportunity to weigh in on who those members are,” she said.
Martin said the proposal’s use of congressional districts would be problematic. He said the shift of appointment power away from Cooper would be part of a “very disturbing trend, but it’s even more appalling using the gerrymandered congressional districts.”
Conrad said the bill sponsors used congressional districts “to make sure there’s representation from all areas of the state.”
“This would give the public the opportunity to elect someone from their area who would represent them well,” she said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the governor.”
But Wayne Goodwin, the former insurance commissioner who now chairs the N.C. Democratic Party, questions the timing of the bill. “These types of proposals did not come up with (Republican) Gov. McCrory in office,” he said.
Cooper’s office did not respond to questions about the bill, and Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey could not be reached.