RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Republican legislators on Thursday gave final approval to make temporary judicial election changes and to permanently reduce the ballot access thresholds that political parties and candidates need to meet.
Convening a special session to consider a hodgepodge of legislation, GOP leaders also pushed through a state budget cleanup measure that in part further attempted to limit Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, who had earlier this year been ordered by Republicans to locate $10 million in cuts. A provision prevents Stein from delegating to local district attorneys the job of representing the state in criminal appeals. Democrats argued the cuts were politically motivated and an obstacle for him to carry out his duties.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper must decide within 10 days whether the budget and elections bills deserve vetoes. He’s already issued 12 of them during his first nine months as governor. Eight had been overridden before Thursday, and legislators completed No. 9 before going home by affirming as state law a wide-ranging regulatory bill that Cooper said would make it harder for government to protect water quality.
GOP lawmakers also found a way Thursday to bypass his July veto of a bill that allowed local governments in an urban county to stop posting legal notices in newspapers and put them on government websites instead.
Legislators used parliamentary maneuvering to break the bill into two parts, and the portion addressing Guilford County notices was not subject to the governor’s veto stamp. Although the Senate passed the Guilford measure by a comfortable margin, the House barely approved it 58-57, as several Republicans remained worried about the precedent and how it could affect newspapers that rely on advertising revenue for the notices. The Guilford bill is now law.
While the Senate essentially ended its work for the session Thursday afternoon, the House worked until the late evening before adjourning. After two hours of debate, the House voted essentially along party lines for a proposed remapping of election districts for Superior Court and District Court seats and for district attorneys. But the Senate won’t consider the maps until at least early January, when the next General Assembly session is scheduled.
Rep. Justin Burr, a Stanly County Republican who shepherded the judicial redistricting, said it would bring much-needed uniformity and fairness to Superior Court and District Court boundaries while increasing the actual number of judgeships. But Democrats said most of the changes occurred in urban counties — where their party is strong — and suggested litigation was ahead because the maps would result in fewer black judges than are currently seated.
Republican legislators had the proposed judicial maps in mind earlier Thursday when they gave final approval to a separate elections bill that would eliminate primaries for all court races in 2018 only and delay candidate filing for those races from February until late June.
GOP leaders say not having primaries for judges in 2018 would give lawmakers more time to fashion new judicial election districts and avoid having to reset candidate filing. Senate Republicans also have linked any district changes to a possible overhaul of how judges — currently elected by voters — are chosen in North Carolina.
The bill “shows we are serious about judicial redistricting,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, on the House floor.
Democrats questioned the motivation for the delay, suggesting a GOP partisan advantage in appeals court races not affected by redistricting. They said the lack of judicial primaries will mean free-for-all elections and voters having little or no information about the candidates.
The winner is “going to be the luck of the draw … or maybe it will be the best sounding name,” said Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County, the House minority leader.
The judicial primary cancellation was attached to a bill that would permanently reduce requirements for unaffiliated candidates to run in state and local elections and for political parties to field candidates up and down the ballot. The bill also would permanently lower the threshold a leading candidate would need to meet in order to avoid a primary runoff. The candidate would need to receive more than 30 percent of the votes cast, down from 40 percent.
Ten states require the leading candidate in a primary election to receive a certain percentage of the vote or face a runoff, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Carolina’s threshold was reduced from a majority to 40 percent in 1989.