News: CJ Exclusives

Veto override session could revamp judicial elections, ballot access

Gov. Cooper vetoed S.B. 656 to forestall a purported constitutional amendment he says would 'rig the system' in judicial elections

CJ file photo
CJ file photo

Editor’s note: The Senate took its override vote Monday night, rejecting Gov. Cooper’s veto by a 26-15 margin.

The Republican-led General Assembly seemed content to stay home until January.

But last week, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, announced a Tuesday morning session to try to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 656, the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017. If the Senate rejects the governor’s veto, the House may follow suit later Tuesday.

Vetoing the bill put Cooper in an awkward situation. It rebuffed a rare opportunity to improve ballot access to North Carolina’s unaffiliated candidates — an argument Democrats championed this legislative session.

Cooper focused his message vetoing S.B. 656 on a provision canceling judicial primaries in 2018. He said it would serve as a precursor to a purported constitutional amendment replacing face-to-face elections with some sort of judicial appointment process.

This provision drew the ire of Cooper’s fellow Democrats, said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College.

Republicans said nixing the primary and only holding a November general election for all candidates is necessary to allow time to fully consider possibly moving to a merit selection system of picking judges. Democrats cried foul, and said the GOP was injecting partisan politics into judicial elections.

With unaffiliated voters surpassing Republicans as the second-largest voting bloc in North Carolina, lawmakers have pondered expanding ballot access for unaffilateds.

As of Oct.14, the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement reports, total voter registration included 2,642,502 Democrats, 2,067,869 unaffiliateds, 2,059,065 Republicans, and 33,708 Libertarians.

S.B. 656 makes it easier for unaffiliated candidates to get on election ballots for most offices by lowering the number of petition signatures needed by qualified voters.

Currently, an unaffiliated candidate for statewide office must gain petition signatures totaling at least 2 percent of the number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. S.B. 656 drops that requirement to 1.5 percent.

An unaffiliated candidate seeking a district office other than a legislative seat would need signatures from 1.5 percent of registered voters in the district, down from the current 4 percent.

But the bill left the barrier for unaffiliated candidates to get on a ballot for the General Assembly unchanged: 4 percent of registered voters in the district.

Largely overlooked in the tense debate over S.B. 656 were two provisions easing the path for a new political party to get on the ballot.

Currently a party must obtain petition signatures equal to 2 percent of total votes cast in the preceding gubernatorial election. That would drop to 0.25 percent. A party now must obtain 200 petition signatures in each of four congressional districts to get on the ballot. That would drop to three districts.

The second method for a political party to get ballot access is new. It would be granted if the party had a candidate on the prior presidential general election ballots in at least 70 percent of all states (35 states).

The Green Party, headlined by presidential candidate Jill Stein in 2016, is the only political party that would gain immediate ballot access under the change. Elections board spokesman Patrick Gannon said the state has no numbers for Green Party voters because they cannot now register under that label.

Voters now can register as Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, or unaffiliated.

McLennan said easing ballot access is a positive, long-awaited development.

“From a political science perspective, North Carolina had very difficult ballot access. It was one of the more stringent states,” McLennan said. “In general, it’s a good idea to reduce barriers for ballot access.”

He said it’s been a couple of decades since either body of the General Assembly passed a measure easing ballot access.

But he doesn’t see altruism in Republicans’ desire to make elections more inclusive.

“You could see it from a very calculated perspective that this is helping Republicans,” McLennan said.

Political scientists who focus on elections typically find the Green Party attracts votes from disaffected Democrats.

“We saw that a little bit in 2016, Stein took votes away from [Democrat] Hillary Clinton,” McLennan said.

Stein won 1 percent of the vote nationally, but did not fare as well in North Carolina, where she received 12,105 votes, or 0.26 percent, as a write-in candidate.

Libertarians rarely pull many voters from other parties in presidential years, but might attract some Libertarian-leaning Republicans, McLennan said. He said an officially recognized Green Party would attract some far-left Democrats. The result, he said, probably would be a wash for the major parties.

“The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts takes no position as to the merits and content of S.B. 656,” AOC spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell said by email.