On June 7, 2016, North Carolina held its second primary of the year, costing the state an estimated $9.5 million and attracting only about 10 percent voter turnout. On the ballot, all of the state’s 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and a N.C. Supreme Court Justice.
This costly second primary is notable for a reason, it only happened because the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly made, not one, but two unconstitutional power plays in recent years.
The state’s first primary was held March 15, and included the Presidential Primaries. However, U.S. Congressional primaries and the N.C. Supreme Court Justice primary had to be postponed because of two different court rulings. The postponement resulted in the second primary being held on June 7.
First, the U.S. Congressional primaries had to be moved to June 7, instead of occurring with the other primaries in March, because five years ago the General Assembly approved district maps gerrymandered along racial lines. The district maps were rightfully challenged by the NAACP and others, and the N.C. Supreme Court twice upheld them in rulings split 4-3 along party lines. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where two congressional districts, the 1st and 3rd, were thrown out in a February 2016 ruling finding them to be gerrymandered along racial lines and therefore unconstitutional. Of course this ruling came down just weeks before the March 15 primaries, and forbade the state from holding any U.S. House elections until new, approved district maps were in place. So, thanks to the poor decisions by the Republican-led 2011-2012 General Assembly, those primaries were postponed until June.
Second, the primary for a N.C. Supreme Court Justice seat was late because the current General Assembly attempted to enact a new law requiring sitting justices to seek re-election in what is called a retention election, a law that was struck down because it clearly violated the State Constitution.
A retention election means that for a justice to be re-elected, he or she will run on the ballot unopposed in a “yes” or “no” simple majority vote. In this case, known Republican and conservative, Justice Robert Edmund, would have been alone on the ballot. If he had received at least 50 percent “yes” votes, he would have remained on the bench. If he did not, he would have lost his seat, however, the Governor of N.C. would have appointed a replacement, who would have held the seat for two years until the next election. In other words, the Republican-held General Assembly passed a bill that would have kept a current Republican Justice on the bench or replaced him with another Justice who would have been appointed by the Republican Governor. The Republican Governor signed that bill into law. The law was challenged and struck down as unconstitutional. So, that primary was added to the June 7th ballot.
The second N.C. primary was a disaster by all measures. Cost estimates are still being tallied as county board of elections report in, but are estimated at over $9 million. Due to the extra costs, the primary was woefully under-publicized in most counties. Add to that the fact the primary wasn’t accompanied by the presidential primaries, and turnout was abysmally low across the state at somewhere between 7 and 10 percent.
This is a disaster because thousands of N.C. voters were essentially disenfranchised by a confusing and mostly unpublicized election. Had the primaries been held with the rest in March, the results might have been quite different.
The primary with the highest stakes was the State Supreme Court race. The N.C. Supreme Court is split 3-4 along party lines with Republican Justices in the majority. The Supreme Court should stand as a check on the power of the General Assembly and the Governor, however it has served more as a rubber stamp of approval for both in recent years. It is no wonder that the General Assembly and Republican Governor attempted to make it an unopposed race.
In the end, four people ran, with the top two vote getters moving on to November’s elections. The conservative Republican Bob Edmund, and Democrat Mike Morgan beat out Independent challenger Sabra Jean Faires and the relatively unknown Daniel Robertson. Edmund and Morgan will face-off in November.
The June 7th primary was necessary to correct two wrongs carried out by power-hungry law makers. Without it, thousands of racial-minority voters would have continued to be silenced by racially-motivated gerrymandering, and the entire electorate’s choice in Supreme Court Justices would have been snatched away. And yet, the unusual nature of the special primary and lack of public knowledge about it, may have just disenfranchised many more voters who did not even know about the elections. One thing is certain, had Republican law-makers, not once, but twice, attempted to take actions that were clearly aimed at holding political power and that were clearly unconstitutional, this never would have happened.
In social work, politics matter. They matter because they directly impact policy, and policy impacts clients. Here is a case where politicians attempted to hold power by disenfranchising voters, which is a social injustice. The resulting primary cost tax payers more than $9 million which could have gone to social programs; another injustice. Social workers have an ethical obligation to challenge social injustice and that is why we must remember the reasons for North Carolina’s second primary when we go to the polls in November.