News: CJ Exclusives

Gubernatorial Ticket, Partisan Judicial Race Measures Before House

Elections committee also backs bill making local school board races partisan

North Carolina voters soon could vote for governor and lieutenant governor as a team under a measure approved Tuesday by the House Elections Committee.

House Bill 344, the proposed constitutional amendment would allow candidates to run separately for governor and lieutenant governor in party primaries. However, after party nominees are determined, they would run as a team in the November general election.

The committee also sent to the House floor two bills dealing with partisan elections. House Bill 8 would change elections for N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals from nonpartisan races to partisan races. House Bill 324 would require all school board races in the state to be held on a partisan basis. Currently, most school board races in North Carolina are nonpartisan.

Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, who sponsored both the team ticket and the partisan appellate judicial race bills, said that of the 43 states that have a lieutenant governor, in 25 of them the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team.

“The bottom line is this, the governor and the lieutenant governor should be of the same party,” Jones said. “The lieutenant governor is a heartbeat away from being governor. … These two people should be working together.”

Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, disagreed.

“We seem to have survived this split in gubernatorial and lieutenant governor ticket for quite a while,” Michaux said. He questioned what would happen if an unaffiliated citizen wanted to run for lieutenant governor.

The bill requires petitions for unaffiliated candidates to include the name of both a candidate for governor and lieutenant governor.

The bill passed on a 16-11 party-line vote. It now heads to the House floor. If approved by the House and the Senate, it would be submitted to voters for ratification in a referendum during the 2018 general election. If ratified, the team ticket law would take effect with the 2020 elections.

The bill making elections for appellate judges partisan also passed along party lines, this one 17-11. It would make races for Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges partisan beginning next year. Superior Court and District Court judges would continue to be elected on a nonpartisan basis.

Jones said voters are asking for more information about judicial candidates, and adding a partisan label would provide additional context.

“The main question that I hear from citizens – tell me something about the judges,” Jones said. “Both of the political parties are out there stumping for their candidates, giving out their information at the polls.”

“Give the people more information,” Jones continued. “Let’s just be transparent about it, folks.”

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said the judicial elections should remain nonpartisan.

“I think the public’s perception out there is that judges shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into one party or the other,” Harrison said. “I feel like the public out there is actually interested in less partisanship in elections. I know I am.”

Before 1996, all judicial races in the state were conducted in a partisan manner. That year, the state removed the partisan designation from elections for Superior Court judges. In 2001, the General Assembly approved a law making District Court elections nonpartisan. Beginning in 2004, elections for appellate court judgeships became nonpartisan.

The bill now heads to the House floor.

The proposal making all local school board elections partisan passed the committee on a voice vote, with misgivings from some Republican members of the committee.

“I do wonder if this isn’t something best left to each county,” said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford.

“I think that this ought to be done on a local bill basis,” said Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake.

“There’s [an] epiphany going on here somewhere,” Michaux joked, noting that he was in the unusual position of agreeing with Stam.

Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, one of the bill’s sponsors, argued that making school board races partisan helps inform voters, saying that individuals should know a candidate’s political philosophy before going to the polls, and party designations can serve as a proxy for a candidate’s ideological leanings.

The entire House chamber will be the next stop for the bill.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.