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Chris Fitzsimon: Lawmakers want competition, except in their own races

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Chris Fitzsimon is founder and director of NC Policy Watch, a progressive public policy think tank that is a special project of the N.C. Justice Center.

Hypocrisy in politics is hardly a new phenomenon, but rarely is it as boldly on display as it was last week from Republican legislative leaders during the latest of the now monthly special sessions of the General Assembly.

The House and Senate passed legislation called the “Electoral Freedom Act,” first introduced by Sen. Andrew Brock of Mocksville in this year’s regular legislative session that sought to make it easier for unaffiliated candidates and new political parties to appear on the general election ballot.

North Carolina has some of the most restrictive ballot access laws in the country, and many good government groups for years have pushed lawmakers to change them.

Brock’s original bill would have reduced the number of signatures required on a petition to form a new party and reduced the number of signatures unaffiliated candidates need to submit to gain access to the ballot in the fall elections.

The Senate passed Brock’s bill in April and the House passed a slightly different version at the end of the regular session in June, but it still reduced the threshold for petition signatures for political parties and unaffiliated candidates in most races.

The Senate balked at the changes, sending the legislation to a conference committee, where House and Senate leaders met behind closed doors to work out the differences between the two versions.

Brock meanwhile resigned from the General Assembly in June after being appointed by Senate leaders to the N.C Board of Review.

The conference report popped up in last week’s special session with an entirely new section that eliminated the primary election in judicial races, a startling addition that prompted Gov. Roy Cooper to veto the bill.

Cooper said the elimination of the primary appeared to be part of a larger plan by legislative leaders to end judicial elections altogether and replace them with an appointive process with legislators making most of the appointments.

Cooper is probably right. It’s not every day a legislative branch of government cancels an election with no notice or real debate about it. That alone was worthy of a veto.

As troubling as all that is, it is not the hypocritical part.

Republican legislative leaders attacked Cooper for his veto. Rep. David Lewis said Cooper was “afraid for voters to have more choices at the ballot box.”

That’s more than a little ironic since Lewis was a chief architect of the gerrymandered legislative and congressional districts designed specifically to elect Republican majorities by limiting competition from Democrats in general elections.

Lewis’ statement came in a press release that explained that the legislation would among other things, “allow for more ballot access for third parties and unaffiliated candidates.”

Raleigh’s leading conservative pundit weighed in too, saying the legislation deserved Cooper’s support because it lowered the threshold for winning a primary to 30 percent and because it increases ballot access to unaffiliated candidates.

He even claimed that Republican lawmakers deserve praise for the changes because the legislation is unlikely to “advance their partisan interests.”

But left out of the column and Lewis’ statement and much of the media coverage of the legislation is a provision that keeps the restrictive ballot access rules the same for people running for the General Assembly.

Brock’s original bill lowered the signature requirement for ballot access for legislative candidates but the conference report crafted in secret and passed last week returned it to current levels.

Lewis, who is now criticizing Governor Cooper for allegedly being afraid of giving voters more choices, is now touting a plan that he and his GOP colleagues changed to prevent voters from having more choices when the legislators are running to keep their seats in the General Assembly.

Apparently expanding ballot access is a good idea except when it comes to the ballot that Rep. Lewis is on. That one needs to stay tightly controlled.

Bold hypocrisy indeed.

Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch in Raleigh.

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