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Election limbo demands voter vigilance

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Residents wait in a line to vote at the one-stop early voting site in 2016.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Filing for candidates seeking office across North Carolina begins Feb. 12. As far as certainty regarding the 2018 elections in the Tar Heel state goes, that’s about it.

Seriously. As we rolled into February there were uncertainties regarding Congressional district lines, state legislative lines, state courts and elections boards:

■ As it stands now, North Carolina could see its fourth straight election conducted with congressional district maps federal courts say are unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court paused a federal court ruling against those maps to consider partisan gerrymandering cases from Wisconsin and Maryland. A decision on the legality of gerrymandering is expected in June, long after congressional campaigns would have set sail.

The high court has been hesitant to step in on partisan gerrymandering in the past, but hasn’t had to deal with maps as blatantly gerrymandered as the ones being turned out now, thanks to powerful computing technology. In North Carolina, registration runs democrat, unaffiliated and republican, in that order. Yet the state’s maps have seen 10 of 13 congressional districts go to Republicans.

■ A federal three-judge panel in 2017 decided state legislative district maps were racially biased and ordered them redrawn. In January, the redrawn maps were also thrown out, and the court used a map drawn by an outside expert to produce new maps. GOP lawmakers asked the Supreme Court for an emergency stay. As the filing deadline approaches, any number of hopefuls are uncertain of what district they could run for. If the matter stays tied up in court, it’s entirely conceivable maps deemed illegal could be used in this year’s election for state house races.

■ The Republican majorities have been busy changing the state court system since they were elected in 2010. Public financing of campaigns has been eliminated; non-partisan races are now partisan. Shortly after Gov. Roy Cooper was elected in 2016 and two Republican judges neared retirement (as governor, Cooper had the power to name their replacements), the size of the appellate court was cut by three seats.

Judicial tinkering has gone into high gear recently. A law was passed making every judicial race in the state partisan. All judicial primaries for 2018 were cancelled. Proposals have been floated to cut the length of judicial terms, to redraw judicial lines in a manner that would force sitting Democratic judges to run against one another and to replace elections with a legislature-controlled appointment process.

On Jan. 31, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles issued an order restoring primaries for statewide judicial offices. If that stands, it will prevent the possibility of a cluttered ballot and prevent the possibility of a judge being elected with a mere 30 percent of the vote. With the General Assembly still considering redrawing judicial lines for lower courts, the ruling doesn’t apply to district and superior court judgeships.

■ Following Cooper’s election, the General Assembly passed S.L. 2017-6, which merged the state’s ethics and elections board into the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics. It changed the makeup of county election boards. Previously, the party of the governor held the majority of the three-member county boards. S.L. 2017-6 changed the composition of the boards to an even number of Democrats and Republicans.

In the current partisan environment that makes a recipe for gridlock in many counties. Cooper sued, and over the seven months of the suit county boards were left at three members with GOP majorities. In late January, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned S.L. 2017-6. No timeline for naming new boards was included in the ruling. The case will be back in the hands of a three-judge panel that is expected to determine the impact of the ruling, likely by mid-February.

We may look back at those seven months as critical ones. Actions not addressed by an empty state board include replacing aging voting machines and making sure software that went haywire in 2016 has been decertified.

North Carolina’s 2018 elections are surely built on shifting sands, and those shifts could continue with the back-and-forth of court rulings and challenges and a state legislature that seems to have endless … creativity, shall we say … when it comes to rigging the game in one party’s favor.

Voters will need to stay tuned to an unprecedented degree.

Carolina Commentary

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