Unaffiliated Orange County candidate asks court to set lower ballot threshold

Carolina Journal photo by Mitch Kokai

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  • An unaffiliated Orange County candidate hopes the N.C. Court of Appeals will support his interpretation of the number of petition signatures needed to secure ballot access for a local election.
  • Connor Fraley argues he should have been able to gain a spot on the ballot with 4% of the signatures of voters in his district. The county argues Fraley needed signatures from 4% of the voters countywide.

An unaffiliated Orange County candidate hopes the N.C. Court of Appeals will overrule a lower court decision that kept him off the ballot in 2022. The legal dispute involves the number of petition signatures necessary to secure ballot access.

Connor Fraley wanted to run as a candidate in one of two districts set up for Orange County commissioner elections. The seven-member board includes three members who live in District 1, which includes Chapel Hill and Carrboro and 62% of the county’s population, according to court filings. Two members come from the more rural District 2, which includes Hillsborough. Two other members run countywide for at-large seats.

Regardless of the districts, each candidate must win a countywide general election.

Fraley wanted to run for a District 2 seat. As an unaffiliated candidate, state law required him to secure petition signatures from 4% of the voters. Fraley and the county disagree about whether that 4% threshold applies to voters within District 2 or the entire county.

Fraley sued in January. Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour agreed with the county’s interpretation of the 4% threshold. Fraley appealed to the state’s second-highest court in March.

“While all seven seats are voted on by the whole county in the general election, five of the seven seats are nominated from and by only the voters of the two districts. This arrangement is the only of the approved options in which the pools of voters that nominate and the pools of voters that elect are not always identical,” Fraley wrote in an April 4 brief for the Appeals Court.

Fraley argued that “in order to be nominated for a district seat, the proper number of signatures required is 4% of the registered voters of the nominating district, who are the only voters eligible to vote for that office when making nominations via the primary election.”

The county’s interpretation could lead to problems, Fraley warned. “This result directly contradicts the relevant statutes — District 1 voters could have their signatures counted on
petitions for District 2 nominations, and even select a District 2 nominee entirely on their own,” Fraley wrote. “Though the county continues to separate the districts for nominations by primary, the trial court’s interpretation leaves open a backdoor for out-of-district nominations by petition, meaning that not all candidates for District 2 must be nominated by the district voters. Not only does this uneven arrangement directly violate the election scheme adopted by Orange County, it doesn’t match any of the approved options” in state law.

The county attorney’s office responded to Fraley’s arguments Monday. “Here, the Plaintiff contends that he is entitled to be placed upon the ballot for the general election for Orange County Commissioner by gathering 4% of the signatures within District 2 despite the statutes stating the contrary, that indicate 4% of the signatures must be gathered within the county as a whole,” according to the county’s brief. “Summary judgment is proper in that the plain language of the applicable statutes warrant that signatures from 4% of the entire county must be garnered in order to be placed on the ballot for a general election, not 4% from an individual district.”

Fraley will have a chance to respond to the county’s brief before a three-judge Appeals Court panel proceeds with the case.