North Carolinians have officially lost an election to vote in next year.
The General Assembly on Monday and Tuesday voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 656, which eliminates judicial primary elections next year. The bill is now law.
Democrats vehemently opposed overriding the veto because of the section eliminating the primaries. Republicans have said doing so will give them more time to examine and implement House Bill 717, which redraws all judicial and prosecutorial districts.
It’s also believed that SB656 is the first step toward a merit or legislative appointment process to get rid of judicial elections altogether. That would, however, require a constitutional amendment and approval from the public.
Rep. Joe John (D-Wake), a former state Court of Appeals judge, said SB656 is an embarrassment that makes a mockery of judicial selection.
“We should not want our names associated with this process,” he said. “No valid reason has been advanced for this bill.”
John cited information from an NC Policy Watch article about the consequences of eliminating a judicial primary. North Carolinians saw such general judicial elections without primaries in 2004, 2010 and 2014, and in each, the winner only secured under 24 percent of the vote.
Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), a former Chief District Court judge, also spoke against the bill during House debate Tuesday.
“We are putting the cart before the horse with this bill because it’s all based on speculation of what is to happen in the future,” she said. “It is all based on 717, that hasn’t even been considered by the Senate.”
Morey said SB656 would cause voter chaos with an unlimited number of people allowed on the ballot to run for judicial offices.
“Those ballots are going to look like small books,” she said. “Do we really want an informed electorate to go through the names and find John Wayne and that sounds good and let’s elect him into office with less than 20 percent of the vote? Responsible governing by this body should never create mass chaos for
voters and that’s exactly what’s happening in this bill.”
Minority Leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake) tried to ascertain why the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races were included in SB656 since those judgeships aren’t affected by HB717.
Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) responded that lawmakers didn’t know what would emerge in terms of what districts would look like but that Jackson could work on fixing the bill when they return in January.
Jackson, who said he agrees with three of the four sections in SB656, encouraged his colleagues to do the right thing by not overriding the veto and returning in January to have the necessary conversations around such a change.
The House voted 72-40 to override the veto. Two Democrats voted with Republicans and four Republicans voted with Democrats.
The Senate voted 26-15 Monday night to override the veto with two Republicans voting “no.” Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) was the only lawmaker who voiced his opposition to SB656 on the Senate floor.
“No one in this chamber is being honest about why those primaries will be eliminated,” he said.
Cooper responded to the veto override a short time later.
“The legislature is angry that their bad laws continue to be overturned by the courts, and their solution to abolish a scheduled election and once again take away voters’ rights is wrong,” he wrote in an email. “This is the first step toward a constitutional amendment that will rig the system by moving to partisan, legislative selection of judges. Allowing legislators to pick their own judges for political reasons is a bad idea.”