Democracy 101: Wave Of Court Rulings Means North Carolina's Ballot Is Set

Democracy 101: Wave Of Court Rulings Means North Carolina's Ballot Is Set

10:55am Sep 07, 2018
North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, upper left, speaks with Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett and aid Marl Coggins, right, during a July special session at the General Assembly in Raleigh. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

This is part of our election-year civics series, Democracy 101Click here to find more of our stories about important issues in North Carolina politics.

This week has seen a cascade of North Carolina election stories, some of which broke within hours of each other. And with so much happening, it can be difficult to parse what’s most important for voters as November nears.

So let's break it down, starting with North Carolina’s embattled congressional districts. Last week, a court ruled them illegal. Which is to say: judges decided that Republican lawmakers drew those districts to unfairly benefit their own party.

The political science term for this is gerrymandering. And typically, courts have only ruled against districts that are deemed too racially biased. But this is different, in that judges ruled the state's congressional districts to be too politically biased.

This put the entire election into limbo. After all, how can you have an election if you don’t have legal districts?

Which brings us to this week’s news: on Tuesday, the courts decided that our congressional elections will happen, and they'll happen on time. But for now, we’ll use the current districts, even though they’ve been ruled unconstitutional.

Colin Campbell, the editor of the NC Insider news service, puts it simply.

“The districts you used two years ago will still be the districts in place now," Campbell says. "But come 2020, you could have new districts.”

Interestingly, when those maps were deemed unconstitutional last week, even the plaintiffs in the case – the people who fought the districts and won – said changing them so close to Election Day would be too disruptive to the process, and suggested we should stick with the old ones for now.

So that’s where we’re at with who's on the ballot. Now, let’s talk about what's on the ballot – specifically, those controversial constitutional amendments.

Until this week, the State Board of Elections couldn’t even print ballots, because they didn’t know whether or not to include some of the amendments. Now, they know.

It’s all about the language. Previously, judges had said the way the measures were written was misleading, which caused the General Assembly to try again.

On Tuesday, the state’s highest court approved the wording of two of those changes.

Governor Roy Cooper has been fighting these two ballot measures tooth and nail in the courts, because if they pass in November, they would take away some of his power. Here’s Colin Campbell again:

“These are the two most controversial of the constitutional amendments from a 'power of the governor standpoint,'" he says. "Both these amendments deal with shifting some of the appointment power the governor has and shifting it over to the legislature.”

One of the measures limits Cooper’s ability to choose members of the State Board of Elections. The other would limit his choices when filling vacancies in North Carolina’s courts.

While legislative leaders have said the amendments help restore some balance to state government, opponents say they’re a power grab, which threatens the state’s system of checks and balances.

In fact, all five living former governors – Democrats and Republicans alike – say they will continue to oppose the measures for exactly that reason.

Whatever you think of the measures or the congressional districts, this has been a particularly rocky start to the campaign season. Usually things get heated or strange when candidates and parties start attacking each other before an election. But according to Campbell, this time around has been a bit different.

“This year’s unusual, I think, in that we got so close to the election without knowing for sure what exactly we were going to vote on, what districts we were going to vote in," he says. "All of that was up in the air until just this week, which is kind of an eleventh-hour situation to be in, and something I don’t think we’ve seen before.”

So yeah, things have been weird out there. And they may get weirder still.

But at least now we have a ballot, and we know who our candidates will be. So study up, and get ready to head to the polls this November.

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