Monday, June 19, 2017

NC Governor & General Assembly should consider unaffiliated voters when scheduling elections

It’s admirable if not ambitious that North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper wants to have a special election for the General Assembly prior to its 2018 session. The special election would come after districts for the NC House and NC Senate are redrawn without using race or politics as a guide. Gov. Cooper’s push for a quick election is admirable—though many think he is grandstanding just as he accuses the Republicans of doing—even if the districts are set with any sense of decorum; it is ambitious if current election laws and schedules are kept intact.

Good luck, first, with redrawing the districts to please the Republicans which owns Raleigh's Jones Street legislature while satisfying the Democratic Governor who hopes at the very least his party can pick up enough seats in new districts and elections to keep the GOP from having veto proof law-making. The courts also have to be pleased with whatever happens in redistricting.

Federal court challenges and jockeying in Raleigh, unfortunately, are being done without consideration of the 2.031 million unaffiliated voters, an issue about which I wrote in April in an op-ed piece for The News & Observer, Gov. Cooper, US Senator Richard Burr, and President Donald Trump owe their North Carolina election success in 2016 to unaffiliated voters who controlled the North Carolina political process. When the winners' celebrations ended so did the desire to include unaffiliated voters in law-making and political procedures.

The law merging the North Carolina Ethics Board with the North Carolina Board of Elections is a good example. Those two terms—Ethics and Elections—should not be mentioned in the same breath as a functioning part of the choosing our leadership, but the Republicans think and thought so. The law combines those two boards and directs the Governor to appoint four board members equally between Democrats and Republicans. Previously, the Elections Board had five members, three from the ruling Governor’s party and two from the other. To date, the Governor has stalled the process by not appointing anyone to the combine board which prevents the appointment of county boards. The election process in North Carolina is slowly and surely grinding to a halt or an all-out court battle that will never end, even if the US Supreme Court says to end it.

Now, get this: Nowhere does the law give the unaffiliated registered voter a seat at the state or county level. The Republicans didn’t suggest it in legislation. Gov. Cooper hasn’t spoken up for it. He vetoed the legislation, not so much that it is a bad idea to merge the two boards but as a protest to his appointive power reduction by the General Assembly.

The law requires the evenly split state board to appoint county boards along the same lines, equally between the two parties. Gov. Cooper’s stamp of disapproval was over-ridden by the Republican dominated General Assembly so he challenged the law in court. There are all sorts of law suits currently in progress, some about redistricting near or at the United States Supreme Court. The battles are about competition or lack thereof between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

One filing is by Michael Crowder, a lawyer from Carrboro, NC, whose lawsuit on the surface challenges the merger of the NC Board of Elections with the NC Ethics Board. More importantly his beef is the make-up of appointed state and county members to the combine board. Even with numbers to show the impact of the unaffiliated registrants—as of mid-June: 2.639 million registered Democrats; 2.051 million registered Republicans; and 2.031 million registered unaffiliated—there will be no unaffiliated registered voters on any of those boards and nothing in the law to rectify it. It’s the same for many other appointed boards and commissions throughout North Carolina and across the United States. Elected officials are telling us that if you’re not going to play in the two-party system, if you’re not going to register as a Democrat or Republican, you can only participate when it’s time to vote. Unaffiliated registrants should remember that when voting.

Last April, in that op-ed piece in The N&O newspaper, I advocated the establishment of an “Unaffiliated” party in North Carolina. While such an approach would be difficult at best, unaffiliated candidates can have a voice through the election process, and that’s where Gov. Cooper’s ambitious schedule meets resistance.

Unaffiliated candidates can appear on the general election ballot through petition of the (combined) NC Board of Elections. You do not have to be registered as unaffiliated to do so. You can be Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or unaffiliated. It takes lots of signatures of registered voters who live in the district of the office. For NC Senate and NC House, that’s 4% of the total registered voters in the districts.

With 50 seats in the NC Senate, 120 in the NC House, and nearly 6.8 million registered NC voters, each Senate district should have on average 136,000 registrants and require 5,400 petition signatures and each House district about 71,700, requiring 2,868 signatures. Those numbers vary in each district.

The law governing unaffiliated petitioners says the number of registered voters in the district is as of the first day of the election year and petitions must be submitted by the last Friday in June, six months after the number is determined and 4½ months before the election. A special election this year or any time prior to the 2018 General Assembly call into session may not allow an adequate time requirement for the petition process. But that would be typical of Democrats and Republicans to do whatever it takes to keep the unaffiliated off the ballots and out of the “normal” two-party process.

Our elections methods and how elected officials conduct business are all about political parties with little regard for unaffiliated voters and candidates. If all candidates, even those running in party primaries and for re-election, are required to petition to be on the ballot, lawmakers would think at least twice, maybe, before limiting the petition process.

Unaffiliated voters and the petition process should be considered when scheduling a special election. A short cycle gives advantage to the two political parties. Consider the English phrase extolling the virtue of patience: “Good things come to those who wait.” Though not desirable to Gov. Cooper, redistricting now (before the end of the year) and waiting until November 2018 is the best option for everyone, not just the two major political parties. And that's the way it should be.

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