Elections clock ticks down amid uncertainty
By Gary D. Robertson
RALEIGH — Few things are certain about North Carolina’s 2018 elections, except that voters ultimately will choose members of Congress and the General Assembly and those for county offices.
A tangled web of legislation and litigation stretching to the state’s highest court and nation’s highest court has made it unclear how this year’s elections will be administered, even though candidate filing for some seats begins in two weeks.
There are several court cases and proposals that make murky the election calendar and its management.
Attorneys and legislators spent Monday studying the state Supreme Court’s Friday decision that said the Republican-controlled legislature went too far creating a combined state elections and ethics board.
In a 4-3 ruling, the justices wrote that the law prevented Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper from effectively executing election laws by forcing him to appoint half of the board from a list of candidates created by the state GOP.
The case returns in mid-February to a three-judge panel, which ultimately will determine how far the Supreme Court decision will affect the wider law creating the merged board. The majority ruling didn’t offer many specifics for those judges.
Speaking Monday to hundreds of election officials at a conference in Durham, state elections board lawyer Josh Lawson said attorneys in the case could argue the law must revert to what it was during the 2016 election, when there were separate boards and the governor appointed a majority of the election panel. Lawyers also could say the merged board can be retained in another form.
The merged state board has been vacant during the litigation, making it hard to settle municipal election challenges last year.
Republican legislators and Democratic Party officials are waiting for a federal judge to say whether she’ll reinstate primaries for trial and appellate court judgeships this year.
Primary elections for the legislature, Congress and county offices are scheduled for May 8, but the legislature passed a law canceling judicial primaries and delaying candidate filing for those races until June. State and county Democratic parties sued to retain the primaries.
If the law is retained, judicial elections in November could feature several candidates per seat.
At a hearing last week on a motion to block the new law, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles suggested one possible outcome of the lawsuit could direct the state to hold judicial primaries later in the year.
This year’s elections could be further mixed up if the General Assembly soon approves new election districts for District Court and Superior Court seats. Negotiations over amended boundaries between House and Senate Republicans have slowed. Almost all Republican lawmakers would have to vote for new lines because Cooper is likely to veto any new maps this year.
Some lawmakers also want to talk about ending head-to-head judicial elections altogether, but voters statewide would have to agree in a referendum.
Congressional elections are currently the most likely to follow the traditional schedule. Candidate filing starts Feb. 12, to be followed by May primaries and November elections.
That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court refused this month to force the legislature to redraw district lines now, as a three-judge panel directed. The judges had thrown out boundaries approved by the legislature in 2016 because they were excessively partisan, but Republican lawmakers successfully requested a delay.
Voter advocacy groups and voters who sued aren’t giving up. They’ve asked the justices to accelerate arguments for the state’s appeal so a final decision could be in place this fall.
GOP legislators also have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent new state House and Senate maps from being used, starting with filing next month, while they appeal a lower-court ruling approving new lines.
Another three-judge panel approved changes to a couple of dozen districts by a court-appointed expert to address residual racial bias and a violation of the state constitution. Republicans want to use the maps they approved last August.
If the Supreme Court rejects the GOP request, elections will continue under the amended boundaries.