House Bill 8, which would restore partisan elections for statewide judicial elections, has passed the House and passed first reading in the Senate. While the bill got zero support from Democrats in the House, Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, supported the measure.
“Many people come and ask me why we don't have an R or D beside names on the ballot. Many people do not find the time to look up every candidate and their opinions on various subjects,” she said. “Generally Republicans are conservative in their thoughts, Democrats are more liberal in their thoughts. It helps them make an informed choice.”
But nonpartisan local officials don’t see any need for more partisanship on the ballot and worry that more partisanship could hurt communities. Franklin Mayor Bob Scott said the town would be drafting a resolution at its next meeting to oppose these pieces of legislation.
“To me it’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen,” Scott said, adding that municipal elections could be next to become partisan. “Nonparty municipal elections have worked for years and years — this is just a power grab to take control of everything from town hall to the White House.”
Even though local school board officials are against the measure, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he wasn’t concerned about how it might affect the school boards.
“I’m not concerned with how (being nonpartisan) might affect the boards — I’m concerned with how it benefits the electorate,” he said.
Davis said if voters weren’t familiar with the school board or judicial candidates, then having a party affiliation next to their name would at least give them a sense of their political philosophy. Also, prior to the law being changed in 2002, Davis said judicial elections were partisan for 130 years. He would also be in favor of making municipal elections partisan.
“I don’t see what the problem is — we want people to be educated and know (candidates’) basic philosophy,” Davis said. “Ever since I ran for county commissioner I’ve been a Republican and I’ve gotten things done in Macon County and worked alongside others.”
School board elections
House Bill 324 and Senate Bill 650, called the Elections Transparency Act, would make school board elections partisan. Neither of these bills have made it out of the House yet.
Dr. Chris Baldwin, Macon County Schools superintendent, said his school board sent a letter to legislators stating its desire to remain nonpartisan.
“I can see no benefit to our school system in changing our current non-partisan election system, nor am I aware of any problem within our school system that the new legislation is supposed to address,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin said he was concerned about the ramifications of a board member vacating his or her seat prior to re-election under the proposed legislation. Under the current process, the remaining board members would select a new member, but according to the proposed legislation, the party of the exiting board member would have input.
“By and large, a board member’s political party is known, so I don’t expect this new legislation to have a significant impact on an election,” he said.
Graham County and Swain County already have partisan school board elections.
Gerry McKinney, chairman of the Swain County Board of Education, said the board has had partisan elections for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve talked about changing it in the past but can’t get any support for it,” he said. “In the old days I think it created a problem, but I’ve been on here for seven years and with the last board and this board, it’s never been an issue.”
With all the issues facing public education, McKinney said there wasn’t any room on the board for partisan politics. If he thought for a minute that his board members were voting party lines, he said he would be the first one to pitch a fit about it.
“Being a long-time educator, I couldn’t be more pleased with the people on the board now,” he said. “I love it, and if it were partisan, I wouldn’t stay. It’s all about the students.”
Even though Swain County Board of Education holds partisan elections, McKinney doesn’t think it should be a mandate from Raleigh. While Republican legislators tout support for local control, he said this proposed legislation didn’t reflect that belief.
Chuck Francis, chairman of Haywood County Board of Education and a North Carolina School Boards Association board member, said forcing local boards to hold partisan elections is a bad idea and would set a precedent for Raleigh to take away more home rule.
“The problem I have with it is that education shouldn’t become a political battle between two parties,” he said. “And it could possibly open the door for more control from Raleigh and we’re already limited in what we can do locally — it’s just another way of trying to control the school boards.”
In Haywood County, school board seats are divided by geographic districts so the entire county is represented on the board. Francis is concerned this legislation would change that, which he says has worked well for the board.
Ken Henke, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Education, said he wants school board elections to the stay the way they are now. With all the challenges of working through a budget with the county and trying to deal with state funding cuts, he said the last thing the school board needs to deal with is political battles.
“They’re trying to pull politics back into the school system and the school system needs to stay away from politics,” he said. “We’re working well together no matter what party you belong to and it’s always in the best interest of the students.”
Scott Mooneyham, a spokesperson for the North Carolina League of Municipalities, said the organization was opposed to the legislation. While there are a handful of counties that do have partisan elections, he said the decision should be made by local people.
“They are working on trying to deal with practical everyday problems — these aren’t partisan issues,” he said. “That’s why most choose to hold nonpartisan elections — they don’t want issues to be wrapped up in partisan elections.”
Mooneyham said the League would be watching these bills and would make its concerns known to the General Assembly. As people across the state and the nation are fed up with the partisan gridlock, he said there should be more measured approaches to addressing the issue of uninformed voters.
Making races partisan also puts more pressure on local candidates to spend more money on a campaign, which could result in less people running for office because they can’t afford to compete.
“In this job I’ve been really surprised at the level of qualifications of locally elected officials — surprised in good way,” he said. “It shows that when locally elected officials have the ability to still have jobs and not have to raise tons of money, the position is much more attractive for people from all different walks of life.”
While voters are bombarded with commercials, interviews and platform speeches from candidates during election season, judges running for office don’t often get the same attention. That’s because judges are not allowed to speak out on issues in an effort to remain impartial.
Rep. Bert Jones, R-Reidsville and sponsor of HB8, has said that having a party label next to the judicial candidates will help voters decide at the polls.
Scott, the Franklin mayor, said that argument didn’t hold water. He said labels aren’t necessary and that it was perfectly acceptable for voters to leave a box blank if they weren’t familiar with the candidates.
“If a person doesn’t have strong feelings about a candidate, they shouldn’t just flip a coin and vote because it cancels out other votes from people with strong feelings,” he said. “Not voting in that circumstance is not unpatriotic.”
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, an organization that advocates for more open government, said he supported the state’s move in 2002 to make statewide judicial elections nonpartisan and thinks the proposed legislation is a step backward.
“Judges are different — they’re not politicians, they don’t run on issues,” he said. “They are to be impartial and rule on law so I’ve always felt it was better for these offices to be nonpartisan.”
Common Cause North Carolina was part of the effort to not only make these elections nonpartisan but to offer an alternative to judicial candidates having to raise large sums of money for their campaigns. The Judicial Public Financing Program was created in 2004 to assist judicial candidates with campaign financing but the program was repealed in 2013.
“Candidates could tap into the fund and not have to go around asking for money from people who could potentially appear before them in court,” Phillips said. “It creates a conflict and creates a perception of bias and we’re trying to remove that.”
Phillips understands the argument that voters don’t have a lot of information on judicial candidates and is trying to offer a better solution to the problem.
Under the Judicial Public Financing program, a judicial voters guide was published by the North Carolina Board of Elections that gave voters personal information and background on each judicial candidate. However, the funding for the voter guide is about to dry up since the program was repealed two years ago.
“We’d like voters to delve into more who candidates are instead of just seeing the D or R next to their name,” he said.
Phillips said there has been talk of taking statewide judges off the ballot completely and moving to a merit selection process.
“But if we are going to continue to elect judges, we just need to focus on providing education to voters in other ways — a D and R doesn’t tell the whole story,” he said.