One month ago, I wrote a story asking you to “pay attention” to judicial candidates on Election Day.
And you did.
Now, a record 5.5 million or so votes have been cast in North Carolina, and Republicans are days away from confirming a potential sweep of contests for seats on the N.C. Supreme Court and the N.C. Court of Appeals. But it’s too early to make official predictions, experts say. Like the results of every other race in the 2020 election, little is certain. Yet.
The N.C. Board of Elections will accept mail ballots postmarked by 5 p.m. Election Day until Nov. 12. County election boards will meet Nov. 12 and Nov. 13 in public meetings to count those ballots. (By law, the boards can’t count ballots received after the polls close until those “canvass” meetings.) As of Thursday, Nov. 5, 116,200 absentee ballots had been requested but not accounted for. Roughly 41,000 provisional ballots — votes that must be researched to verify a voter’s eligibility — were cast this year. A majority of those are likely to be rejected.
While the results trickle in, let’s look at the court races and what we know so far.
This year, North Carolina saw record turnout among voters, including a high volume of in-person Republican voters on Election Day. That enthusiasm paid off for GOP candidates, particularly in races for the Supreme Court. As of Thursday, Republican candidate Paul Newby led by 3,742 votes in the contest for chief justice, holding a slim margin over his opponent, current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. About 555,310 people showed up to vote for Newby on Election Day. Just 310,103 people voted for Beasley in person on Nov. 3.
The other Supreme Court candidates saw similar voter trends. Republican Phil Berger Jr., led Democrat Lucy Inman by about 74,000 votes in the race for the high court’s second seat. Berger received 561,206 votes from in-person Election Day voters. Inman got 300,837. Republican Tamara Barringer fared even better over Democratic incumbent Justice Mark Davis. About 562,043 voters showed up for Barringer on Nov. 3. Just 297,591 showed up for Davis. Barringer’s lead over Davis stands at 130,325 votes.
Democrats could easily flip the race between Newby and Beasley before Nov. 12. But most of the outstanding absentee ballots won’t be returned, said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College.
“We should not expect to see all of the ballots or even a majority of them returned, if history teaches us anything,” McLennan told CJ.
The absentee ballots still out there could be with people who voted in person on Election Day. Or they may have left the state, gotten sick, died, or decided not to vote.
The elections board may see as few as 27,349 of the outstanding 116,200 ballots returned and counted before the Nov. 12 deadline, says Andy Jackson, an elections policy analyst at the conservative Civitas Institute. As of press time, the elections board had processed about 4,000 mail-in votes it received after Election Day. Unaffiliated voters accounted for 41% of those returns, while Republicans and Democrats accounted for 29% and 28%, respectively.
Bruce Thompson is an elections lawyer with the Parker Poe law firm in Raleigh. Thompson works for Democrats. He thinks up to 70% of the outstanding ballots could be returned and counted before the Nov. 12 deadline.
If even a modest number of the outstanding ballots are returned, Democratic votes could easily reverse Newby’s 3,700 vote lead, McLennan told CJ.
The other judicial candidates are in potentially tight races, said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University.
“Given the massive Democratic advantage in absentee-by-mail voting in 2020 (particularly compared to 2016), I would expect the Democrats to claw back a few votes in virtually every seat,” Cooper told CJ. “The question remains whether it will be enough.”
Barringer’s lead is only slightly less than the outstanding ballot count, presumably protecting her win. Berger’s 74,000-vote lead is one to watch as ballots continue rolling in. Further down the ballot, it’s likely that GOP candidates will hold their turf in five contests for the N.C. Court of Appeals. All hold roughly three-point leads.
Chris Dillon, the Republican incumbent for the Court of Appeals seat six, won 208,188 votes more than his Democratic opponent, Gray Styers. The second largest lead went to Republican April Wood, who led Democrat Tricia Shields by 190,857 votes as of Nov. 5. Wood and Shields are racing for the fourth seat on the appeals court.
Nobody saw a Republican sweep coming in North Carolina, especially not in appellate court races. Clearly, Democratic analysts were reading the wrong surveys, said Brad Crone, a Democratic political strategist in Raleigh.
Even conservative polls showed Democratic candidates with healthy leads over Republicans before Election Day.
“You could’ve written the Supreme Court polls on Charmin and gotten better use out of them,” Crone said during a Nov. 5 presentation sponsored by the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation.
Republicans’ ground game won the enthusiasm and commitment of voters, Crone said.
“Republicans had no problem getting out in July and knocking on doors,” Crone said of the period where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper froze the state in phase two of his coronavirus lockdown. Democrats remained reluctant to hold any in-person meetings or large campaign events. While GOP officials hosted in-person news conferences and sent campaign workers to knock on doors, Democrats maintained virtual meetings with the press and relied on other socially distanced strategies.
At the same time, civil unrest among protesters ignited new passion for the rule of law. In May and June, riots erupted in Raleigh, Charlotte, and several other cities across North Carolina. Instead of directly condemning the violence, Chief Justice Beasley commended protesters and asked the public to fight against racial injustice and its atrocities. Republicans seized the opportunity, campaigning against judges who were “soft on crime.”
Though Newby will probably lose to Beasley, the GOP is celebrating what they believe will be a big win at the highest echelon of the state’s courts.
“We could not be happier with what we’ve seen in the judicial races,” said Michael Whatley, chairman of the N.C. Republican Party.