Judicial-driven election chaos in North Carolina

If you thought last Saturday's Kentucky Derby field was crowded, consider this.  There will be 22 names on the ballot for Congress in the 13th Congressional District in North Carolina during the June 7 special primary election – five Democrats and 17 Republicans.   

A special primary in North Carolina for congressional races (as well as a non-partisan ballot for the State Supreme Court – more on that below) became necessary when a federal judge ordered the lines in two districts redrawn.  He held that the state legislature had improperly used race to favor Republicans by crowding more minority voters into two districts than were needed to establish that black candidates would in all likelihood be elected to Congress to represent the black voters who predominate in those districts.  Thus, the boundaries of all the adjacent districts were also affected. 

This ruling came down after the filing deadline for the primary.  Indeed, absent ballots were already being cast.  Thus, the congressional races on the regular March 15 primary ballot were ruled null.  Indeed, the chief election judge in each precinct in the state was issued a special marker by the Board of Elections to be used to black out the results in the congressional race from all copies of the results tapes that are run once the polls are closed.  The results in a primary that didn't count were to be top-secret, lest they affect the candidate filings for the special primary.

Of all the redrawn districts, the 13th is shaping up as the most chaotic.  The new district encompasses the north suburbs of Raleigh in Wake County as well as Rockingham, Caswell, Person, and Granville Counties.  Since George Holding, the incumbent Republican congressman, now finds that his home is in a different district, he has decided to run against incumbent Congresswoman Renee Ellmers.  That leaves NC-13 an open seat in a district that is now more competitive for Democrats.  

Not only has this led to the most crowded primary field in memory in what is guaranteed to be very low-turnout election, but the rules regarding runoffs have also been suspended just for this special primary.  Normally, in N.C. primaries, if no candidate gets 40% plus one vote, the candidate who came in second can request a runoff with the top vote winner.  This is usually held four to six weeks later.  The runoff is to assure that no well organized but fringe candidate can prevail in a crowded primary field.  With a mere plurality winning the slot in the general election in the June 7 primary, the Republican standard bearer come November in NC-13 could have as little as 6% support districtwide. 

Not content to leave all the election mischief-making to the federal judiciary, the Wake County Superior Court of North Carolina entered the act, too.  In 2015, Governor Pat McCrory signed into law a bill specifying that sitting justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court would seek re-election in retention elections rather than in nonpartisan competitive elections.  Justices serve staggered eight-year terms and are subject to mandatory measurement on their 72nd birthdays.  The new law directed that for a sitting justice to be re-elected, he or she must receive at least 50 percent "yes" votes in "yes-no" retention elections.  This change was to take effect with the 2016 election.  In March 2016, a three-judge panel of judges ruled that a retention election is not an "election" for the office of Supreme Court justice as required by the N.C. constitution.  The state appealed the ruling to the North Carolina Supreme Court.  Because Justice Robert Edmunds, who is seeking re-election this year, recused himself from the case, the remaining justices split 3-3 on the question.  Therefore, the lower court's ruling overturning the law stood.

Three challengers, all presumed to be Democrats, have filed to run in a contested election against Justice Edmunds, including one who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit overturning retention elections.  The rule for judicial elections is that if more than two candidates apply for the same position, they must run in the primary election.  The two candidates with the highest votes in the primary then advance to the general election.  If there are only two candidates, they are automatically advanced to the general election.  Thus, this four-candidate race was added to the June 7 special primary.

There is often a significant under-vote for judicial races, as many voters do not know the candidates and prefer to skip the race entirely rather than cast a vote in ignorance.  In addition, the absence of a party designation makes it hard for low-information and political-machine voters to tell the candidates apart.  In this primary, the crap shoot nature of judicial elections will be even more apparent, as in several congressional districts there are no contested primaries in one or both major parties.  Not many voters are likely to show up only to vote in the Supreme Court primary.  In two congressional races, the 1st District and the 7th District, there is no contest in either major party.  On the Democrat side, there is no contest in another five of the state's 13 congressional district races.  On the Republican side, there is no contest in one other district, the 11th.  

Thank you, activist judges and Democrat so-called "public interest" lawyers, for making this primary into a complete crap shoot.