RALEIGH — When I returned home to North Carolina from the nation’s capital in 1989 and subsequently registered to vote, I opted not to join a political party. Although my conservative views were already well-established — and publicly on display in the syndicated newspaper column I’d created three years earlier — I considered it inappropriate for a journalist to join a partisan team. I was, and remain, unaffiliated.
At the time, North Carolina was an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Since then, the share of voters registering as Democrats has fallen precipitously. The Republican share rose for a while, then leveled off. The ranks of independent voters have, by contrast, kept growing rapidly. As of early March, about 36% of the state’s 7.2 million voters are unaffiliated, with 33% registered as Democrats, 30% as Republicans, and the rest as Libertarians or Greens.
I’m unaffiliated. So is a plurality of our state’s electorate. Nevertheless, I strongly favor partisan elections. They’re more transparent. They’re more competitive. And with few exceptions, those who strongly advocate nonpartisan elections are partisan actors who think their team benefits by keeping voters in the dark.
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That’s what happened two decades ago when the General Assembly removed the party labels from elections for N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. The Democrats then in charge of state government had been entirely comfortable with decades of partisan elections for those offices — until voters started choosing Republicans.
In 1998, the GOP won a majority on the high court for the very first time. Republicans had also been doing better in other judicial races.
Was this because swing voters without much else go on assumed Republican judges would be tougher or crime and less likely to legislate from the bench? Probably. Whatever the explanation, by 2002 Democratic leaders had seen enough. They took the party labels off. Both major parties kept running candidates for the appellate courts, of course, but it became much harder to convey their philosophical differences to voters. That was the plan. It helped keep Republicans from increasing their majority on the high court. Indeed, they went down a seat in 2004.
Years later, after voters put Republicans in charge of the state legislature, it was the GOP’s turn to play the game. In 2016, strategists feared the party would have a rough election cycle with Donald Trump at the top of the ballot. Worried about losing the one Supreme Court race up that year, they first tried to convert it into a retention election, placing only the incumbent’s name on the ballot for an up-or-down vote. Once this was (properly) ruled unconstitutional, they consciously kept the Supreme Court race nonpartisan even as they restored party labels for Court of Appeals.
The gambit backfired. While Republicans ended up having a pretty good cycle — winning all five Court of Appeals races, for example — they lost the “nonpartisan” race for Supreme Court. That’s probably because, by the luck of the draw, the name of the Democrat, Mike Morgan, was listed above that of the Republican incumbent, Bob Edmunds. In the partisan races of 2016, the Republicans were listed above the Democrats. Morgan got lots of votes from North Carolinians who assumed he was the Republican.
The legislature finally ended the farce of nonpartisan judicial elections. So why am I revisiting the issue today? Because lawmakers have also been converting previously opaque school board races into transparent ones. A decade ago, only one in 10 school boards featured officially partisan contests. Today it’s one in three. More will follow.
Democrats are up in arms. Not coincidentally, Republicans are winning most of the newly labeled school board races.
Now, I’m open to the argument that we shouldn’t elect our judges. I’ve long been convinced that we should let county commissioners appoint school boards as administrative bodies. But as long as we elect these public officials, voters should have as much information as possible about them — including their party affiliations.