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Houses finalizes veto override, eliminates 2018 judicial primaries

CJ file photo
CJ file photo

The N.C. House voted 72-40 to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill that loosens ballot restrictions for third parties and unaffiliated candidates in North Carolina. It also eliminates judicial primaries in 2018, the change that prompted Cooper’s opposition.

After roughly 25 minutes of debate, the House followed the Senate’s lead in overriding the veto. That means Senate Bill 656 becomes law. It’s the 10th time lawmakers have voted to override a Cooper veto during his first year in office. He has vetoed 13 bills, the second-highest single-year total in N.C. history.

“This legislation opens the door for more participation in our electoral process for third parties and unaffiliated candidates,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett. “North Carolina currently has some of the most restrictive ballot-access laws in the nation. Parties that were able to secure a place on the ballot in dozens of other states have been kept away from North Carolina voters who might choose them due to a system that was designed to protect the party in power.”

Lewis also defended elimination of judicial primaries. “The intention is to make known that there are very likely going to be changes to the districts in which these judges run,” he said. “So we’re trying to delay the filing to make sure that we have time to study the different options that are out there — to let the Senate continue to work with House Bill 717 [which would redraw judicial election maps]. Delaying the filing for judges is the most prudent way to accomplish that.”

Democrats countered Lewis’ arguments. “What is being considered today is called the ‘electoral freedom’ bill,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham. “I think it should be called the electoral chaos bill because that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”

Morey supported the bill’s efforts to loosen ballot restrictions, along with a provision that lowers the threshold of votes needed for a party primary winner to avoid a runoff election. S.B. 656 lowers that threshold from 40 percent to 30 percent of the vote in an initial primary.

She opposed provisions targeting judges. “At the last minute, this bill was changed, and the poison was dropped into it, which delays the filing only for judges and eliminates primaries,” she said. “We are putting the cart before the horse with this bill because it’s all based on speculation of what is to happen in the future.”

Morey’s comments followed those of Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, who reminded colleagues of three judicial elections in the past 16 years that had no primary. In each case, the winner received less than 24 percent of the total vote. “This bill is an embarrassment,” John said.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, objected to the process of voting on the judicial primary measure without considering it on its own in House or Senate committees or floor debates.

Jackson also pointed to partisan reasons for approving S.B. 656. He specifically aimed his comments at the elimination of primary elections for appellate court seats, which could not be affected by any judicial redistricting. “It’s very clear why the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals are included in this bill,” Jackson said. “That’s for partisan gain because of one particular justice.”

Republican Barbara Jackson is the only Supreme Court justice who will face re-election in 2018. “We’ve added party ID,” the House minority leader said. “Apparently, we’re not sure that that’s going to be enough to get the incumbent this year … across the bar. So now we’re eliminating primaries so that, hopefully, only the incumbent will file from one party, and several people will file from the other party. We’ll have a jungle race. The winner will get 30 or 40 percent, but as long as it’s a Republican, then the end justifies the means. I don’t think that’s right.”

With this morning’s vote, legislators have finished their work during their latest trip to Raleigh. They are scheduled to return in January.