Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina's primaries, both for the presidential election and all other elections, would be held on March 15 under a bill reviewed by the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday.
The latest draft of House Bill 373 is a "conference report," a compromise between House and Senate lawmakers on a bill over which there was some disagreement.
Originally, lawmakers had planned just to hold the presidential primary on March 15 and hold the remainder of state primaries for Congress, the General Assembly and local offices in May. But Republican leaders said that the extra cost of holding two primaries – estimated to be roughly $9 million – as well as the confusion surrounding multiple primaries persuaded them to consolidate.
Although the bill has been in the works for a while, it was not universally well received.
"I feel like this is an incumbent protection bill," Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, told the committee.
Potential challengers, Stein said, would have less time to get their campaigns together.
Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, replied, "The opportunity for people to run is still there."
The bill does fix one potential technical hiccup. Potential candidates who are now registered unaffiliated must become a member of a party before they can run in that party's primary. Under current law, that switch must happen 90 days before they register. That 90-day window will have already passed by the time House Bill 373 passes. It shortens the lead time to 75 days, which will provide unaffiliated voters a chance to jump into a partisan primary during a December registration period.
Under the bill, the filing period will run Dec. 1-21.
"Why are we doing this?" asked Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg.
Rucho pointed out that, with a May primary, North Carolina voters often missed out on playing a meaningful role in the presidential election. As a big state up for grabs earlier in the process, North Carolina will be a draw for candidates.
"We were trying to put North Carolina and its citizens in a position to choose their presidential candidate," Rucho said.
A separate section of the same bill allows legislative party caucuses, the groups of Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate, to form their own political committees. Under current law, those committees are run through the state party infrastructure.
Rucho and Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said this would allow lawmakers to provide more transparency in their fundraising and spending. It would also allow legislative caucuses to circumvent their party's central apparatus.
Apodaca pointed to a situation in 2014 in which then-U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan chose to route her donations around the state party by way of the Wake County Democratic Party due to an ongoing controversy with the state Democratic Party.
This bill, Apodaca explains, gives lawmakers an even cleaner work-around of their state parties should one be needed. Although no member of the committee mentioned it, there has been rapid turnover in personnel at the state Republican Party headquarters this summer.
A separate measure, House Bill 8, will place the party affiliation of candidates for Court of Appeals on the ballot.
Judges at all levels run in nonpartisan races. That would not change. Unlike candidates for the General Assembly, Republicans and Democrats would not pick nominees for a particular judicial position. Rather, primaries would just narrow the field of candidates for a single seat down to two people.
However, voters would know which judges are Republicans, which are Democrats and which are unaffiliated. It is possible that two Democrats or two Republicans could wind up running against each other in November.
House Bill 8 is headed to the Senate floor. House Bill 373 has not been formally reported in from the conference committee.