McCrory signs bill for partisan court elections
Posted December 16, 2016
Updated December 17, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — Nerves became frayed Friday amid a second day of protests and a third day of a special session many lawmakers objected to having.
"I have heard folks on the other side of the aisle be coy about the motivation for being here," said Rep. Chris Sgro, D-Guilford. "The intent is a partisan coup of the state of North Carolina to overturn the will of the people of this great state. None of us should stand for it."
"This is majority rule. It's not mob rule," Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, shot back. "Elections have consequences. Elections provided us a new governor, but those same elections – the same electorate – provided (legislative) super-majorities, the same as in this current session. This is not a lame-duck session.
"This is no coup," Dollar said. "Every member (of the House) was democratically elected in a constitutional way. ... The results (of votes) have on almost every occasion been done so by at least two-thirds of this body. That is the will of the people."
The encounter came as protesters, who had been cleared from the House gallery, chanted and sang outside the chamber, leading to several arrests, and as the House debated a proposal to create partisan Supreme Court elections and to combine the oversight functions for elections, campaign finance, lobbying and ethics disclosures under one board.
The House passed the bill 63-27, and Gov. Pat McCrory signed it shortly thereafter. The Senate had passed it Thursday afternoon.
"This legislation lays important groundwork to ensure a fair and ethical election process in North Carolina," McCrory said in a statement late Friday.
The partisan judicial elections drew the most criticism from House Democrats.
"Stop making everything partisan," Rep. Robert Reives, D-Lee, pleaded with the Republican majority, saying judges and school board members "should be sacrosanct" and kept free of political influence.
"At some point, at some level, we've got to decide there are things we're just going to leave alone," Reives said. "Politics is everywhere, but you can reduce the influence."
Republicans scoffed at the Democrats' call for nonpartisan elections, saying it was merely cover for partisan motives.
Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, held up copies he printed of various Democratic Party brochures and websites to inform voters which judicial candidates were registered Democrats.
"It's not based on who's the most qualified. It's based on their political affiliation," Burr said. "I think this is purely politics from the other side. They know that North Carolina voters tend to elect more conservative, more Republican judges. They trust them. ... By making it clear where (candidates) stand, it is better for the voters to have all of that information."
Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, noted that fewer people cast votes in the Supreme Court race last month than in any of the Court of Appeals races, where party affiliation was included for the first time in many years.
"Is a person more or less partisan just because their party label is listed on the ballot," Jones said. "Folks, we're not kidding anybody."
The bill also called for creating an eight-member board – four Democrats and four Republicans – to replace both the State Board of Elections and the Ethics Commission.
Republican sponsors said it was aimed at having bipartisan oversight of elections, campaign finance, lobbying and ethics disclosures. But Democrats criticized it as a way to take power from incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Under current law, Cooper would appoint members of the State Board of Elections and be able to give it a 3-2 partisan tilt toward the Democrats, reversing the 3-2 Republican majority appointed by McCrory.
Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, noted that the measure puts leadership of the board in Republican hands during election years, when most critical decisions on campaigns and voting procedures will be made.
"I'm not sure if that's a bug in the plan or an intended feature," Martin said.