Archives

Commentary

[Bill Wilson, the Deputy Director of the North Carolina Justice Center and a veteran observer of state politics, recently examined at the candidate filings for the 2016 elections. As explained in the essay below, his findings once again document the need for electoral reform.]

BillWilsonAsk Santa for a better democracy
By Bill Wilson

With the holiday season in full swing, not a lot of North Carolinians are paying much attention to the recently concluded candidate filings for the North Carolina General Assembly. Sadly, they probably have other good reasons not to be too excited. A look at the results indicates that many candidates got an early holiday gift this year by being elected to the legislature a full 11 months prior to Election Day and without actually having to run.

Of the 50 districts in the state Senate, 13 people have been elected even before the early March primary – that’s 26 per cent of the entire Senate. After the primary, only 35 of the Senate’s districts will have an election in November.

Voters for seats in the state House suffer a similar fate. Of the 120 seats in the House, voters in 40 districts (one-third of all seats) will have no choice as to who will represent them in 2017, again even before the March primary. After the primary, candidates in 46 of the 120 seats will already be decided.

Overall, of the 170 seats in the NC legislature, 53, or almost a third, will be decided before any election takes place. After the March primary election, 61 seats will be determined before the November general election, and frankly, many if not most of these races are not really competitive.

While this is a sad statement for our democracy in North Carolina, voters shouldn’t be surprised since incumbency continues to offer a clear advantage — particularly with respect to fundraising and the gerrymandered districts that will provide voters with only a few competitive November contests.

Another sad fact is that it appears that less than 25% of all candidates who filed will be women.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Four different  bills were introduced last year in both the state House and state Senate (some with bipartisan support) that would change the way the districts are drawn – taking power away from the legislators who have incentives for self-preservation and party control and giving it to an independent redistricting commission that would develop districts that the legislature could vote up or down, but could not change.

Some proposals would put this process into play after the 2020 census; another would put it off until 2030. One, House Bill 92, even has 63 House sponsors – enough to pass the bill on the House floor. Unfortunately, for legislative leaders, this is apparently too soon for their liking since none of these bills were considered in the 2015 long session.

A recent news report claimed that the redistricting process was “in for a big rewrite in 2020,” but unless the state moves toward drawing districts without regard to incumbency and party control, real change is unlikely. Instead, we’ll continue to see abysmal candidate filing statistics like the ones above — with those candidates who do file often beholden to far right and far left constituencies and that will continue the political polarization that exists in our General Assembly.

This year, let’s ask Santa for legislative districts in which  voters have real choices in who they want to represent them, and where the quality of candidates and their positions on issues will decide elections instead of districts designed to elect one particular party or the other.

Better yet – let’s ask the General Assembly to pass this legislation!

Happy holidays!

News

Supreme courtIn record speed, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the first of four redistricting cases currently on its October 2015 docket, holding in Shapiro v. McManus that, unless a single federal district court judge finds the complaint at issue “constitutionally insubstantial,” a redistricting lawsuit should be handled by a three-judge panel, as required under the Three-Judge Court Act.

“‘Constitutional insubstantiality’ for this purpose has been equated with such concepts as ‘essentially fictitious,’ ‘wholly insubstantial,’ ‘obviously frivolous,’ and ‘obviously without merit,’”  Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.

“And the adverbs were no mere throwaways;  the limiting words ‘wholly’ and ‘obviously’ have cogent legal significance. Without expressing any view on the merits of petitioners’ claim, we believe it easily clears [this] low bar.”

Attorneys argued the case before the high court on November 4.

The full opinion is here.

For more on the background of  the McManus case, read this post by Bloomberg’s Kimberly Robinson.

For more on the redistricting cases at the high court, read here.

News

The state legislature has set aside $8 million to defend lawsuits challenging the litany of controversial laws passed by the Republican majority in recent years, according to the Associated Press.

The litigation list is long and includes several state and federal actions seeking a rejection of voting maps adopted in 2011 and a reversal of voting law changes enacted in 2013, as well as challenges to the state’s same-sex marriage ban, the private school voucher program and the “Choose Life” license plate offering.

Funds for litigation costs go to private counsel retained to represent state officials in court, typically the job of the Attorney General. In some instances though, Attorney General Roy Cooper has declined to represent the state in cases which his office has determined are indefensible.  For example, after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that a Virginia gay marriage ban violated the U.S. Constitution, Cooper stated that his office would no longer defend the similar North Carolina ban in court. It was time to stop fighting court battles the state could not win, he said at the time.

In other instances, Republican lawmakers have retained private counsel even while Cooper was likewise defending the state, voicing concerns that he wouldn’t adequately represent their interests.

The primary beneficiary of the General Assembly’s largess has been the Raleigh office of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, with attorneys from that firm representing state officials in several lawsuits, including the voting rights and redistricting cases. That’s the same firm that also advised Republican leaders during the drafting of the 2011 redistricting plan.

Outside bills since summer 2014 alone exceeded $3 million, according to the AP — $2.9 million of that incurred by Ogletree Deakins to defend the voting rights cases.

Those cases are far from over, as dispositive rulings from the federal district courts remain pending and appeals to the Fourth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court are likely to follow. The same is true for the redistricting cases in state and federal courts, and new lawsuits challenging other controversial laws are on the horizon.

As the AP points out, a challenge to the state’s “magistrate recusal” law, which allows magistrates to opt out of performing marriages based upon a “sincerely held religious objection” to gay marriage, could be filed in the coming months.

According to Roy Cooper’s office,  the Attorney General has defended state laws in at least 15 cases and didn’t need the help of costly outside counsel.

“Our office hasn’t requested that the General Assembly hire any of the private lawyers they’ve been paying, and we think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to pay outside lawyers to do the work we’re already doing,” Cooper’s spokesperson Noelle Talley said in a statement.

###

Commentary

If you are in Raleigh and have a chance tonight, check out this fine event hosted by the good people at Common Cause North Carolina:

Lawmakers, political scientists to talk gerrymandering during Holtzman forum

Gerrymandering — the practice of drawing electoral districts to advantage one political party over another — will be the topic of discussion when state lawmakers, political scientists and demographers gather on Nov. 11 for the annual Abe Holtzman Public Policy Forum.

From 5:30-8 p.m. in Caldwell Lounge at N.C. State University, a panel including state representatives Paul “Skip” Stam (R-Wake) and Grier Martin (D-Wake) will aim to provide greater clarity on gerrymandering, its impact and the possibility of reform.

Other members of the panel include NC State political science professors Andrew Taylor and Mark Nance, Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities Vice President Allan Parnell and Catawba College Provost and Professor of Political Science Michael Bitzer. The event is free and open to the public.

Please RSVP by clicking here.

The Holtzman Forum is named after Abe Holtzman, a longtime professor of political science at NC State whose work focused on lobbying, political parties and the relationship between the president and Congress. This forum is in honor of his legacy of passionate and effective teaching and research that for 45 years improved the lives of generations of North Carolinians.

Commentary

As readers will recall, one of the most contentious battles of the 2015 legislative session was the one that centered around Guilford County Senator Trudy Wade’s efforts to remake the Greensboro City Council without the approval of Greensboro voters. As this morning’s lead editorial in the Greensboro News & Record points out, Wade’s effort received a powerful “thumbs down” from voters in yesterday’s municipal elections:

“All nine members were re-elected by wide margins — and voters agreed to lengthen terms from two years to four beginning in 2017, as the council proposed.

Coming in the midst of a months-long battle over the shape of the council, the result delivered a clear verdict. ‘The city is comfortable with the City Council it has, and it has reaffirmed that,’ Mayor Nancy Vaughan said.

State Sen. Trudy Wade sold her restructuring bill as an answer to dissatisfaction with Greensboro’s mix of district and at-large seats. An all-district system would provide more equitable representation, she said.”

Let’s hope yesterday’s vote sends a strong message to state lawmakers to give up their efforts to meddle in local government elections in areas (like Wake County) in which they don’t like the outcomes. Unfortunately, given their record of shameless interference, this seems unlikely anytime soon.