[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.]
Ask 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!