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Our Election System is Broken

Updated: May 10, 2022

North Carolina experienced a smooth election kickoff last week.

Just kidding. That is no longer the North Carolina Way.

Instead, filing for candidates for everything from dogcatcher to U.S. Senate was set to begin Monday morning, with state legislative and U.S. congressional candidates lining up to vie for seats in new maps drawn by the N.C. General Assembly following the 2020 Census.

With caravans of congressional and state House and Senate candidates converging on election boards, a three-judge N.C. Appellate Court panel essentially told them to turn those caravans around. It halted filing for those races due to lawsuits saying the new districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

Later that day, the full 15-member court, to paraphrase “The Price Is Right’’ host Bob Barker, overruled that move and told candidates to “Come on Down!”

And thus, the Herald reported in last week’s edition, which rolled off the press around noon on Wednesday.

Well, Wednesday wasn’t over. Later in the day the N.C. Supreme Court ordered an end to filing for everyone, and moved the 2022 primary from March 8 to May 17.

The court says the delay will give the state time to settle lawsuits regarding the new maps, and ordered the judges in those cases to make rulings by Jan. 11. Of course, there’s no telling if that will actually settle things, as the map issue seems destined to ping-pong around every court proponents and opponents can find.

“Anything’s possible on Opening Day and in North Carolina redistricting,” said Chris Cooper, the Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor and Director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute. “We’ve been down this road before and we’ve seen the suite of outcomes — from the court throwing out maps and starting over, to the court saying the maps were just fine as they were. Sometimes the court splits the difference and says that the maps aren’t fair, but it’s not under their purview to decide whether they should be fair or not. Any of this is possible. There’s no doubt that the current maps are better for the Republicans than the Democrats, the question is whether the court will decide that they meet a legal standard of gerrymandering.”

Cooper says the timeline for the election should come into focus, quickly, in January. “It seems like the court is trying to move quickly. The hearing will take place by January 11. We can safely assume that no matter the outcome, there will be an appeal, but I would expect that appeal to be filed and heard quickly. Another way to approach the question is to move backwards-mail balloting should start 50 days before the election, which would put it at March 28 (or April 1, if the State Board moved it to day 45, which they technically have the ability to do). Candidate filing needs to end at least 21 days before that, which would put it at around March 7. So, put all of that together, and it seems likely that we’ll have the ‘final’ maps by the end of February at the latest.

But, lest we get too excited, ‘final’ just means ‘final’ for 2022. As to what we could expect in 2024, your guess is as good as mine.”

This guessing game is one we’re playing in pretty much every election in North Carolina, and it does a huge disservice to voters, who after all are the people who matter the most in elections. Litigation over redistricting resulted in delays to all or some of state primaries in 2002, 2004 and 2016. New maps were ordered to be drawn in 2016 and 2019.

This jerking around of the electoral calendar impacts even the folks who have the time to figure out their new district lines and field of candidates to choose from. Average folks who are busy with their jobs, their kids, their church and their lives can easily miss those details and other important information such as the deadline to file, etc.

There’s a fix for this: independent, non-partisan commissions that split up maps fairly and let the voters choose the politicians, not the other way around. These commissions have been tried with success in a number of states.

It’s worth a try. As is, the number of non-competitive races, featuring districts weighed heavily in favor of one party or another, have reached an appalling number in North Carolina. The result means many seats are barely even competed for; who wants to mount a challenge against an incumbent flush with cash sitting on a built-in 10-point lead?

The result also is entrenched politicians who can go to bed at night confident they really don’t have to bother listening to their constituents.

That’s not the way a representative system should work. And it has a corrosive effect on service to the people, which is the whole point of a government.

We’re paying a price for years of this.

And that price, as Bob Barker might say, is wrong.

This article originally appeared in the Sylva Herald.

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