N.C. Democrats' answer to H.R. 1

The state elections-reform bill has a different set of problems

Since I dedicated most of Friday’s newsletter to a no-hope GOP-sponsored constitutional amendment, in a nod to fairness, it’s the Democrats’ turn.

House Bill 542, the Fix Our Democracy Act, is state Democrats’ answer to H.R. 1, the federal For the People Act. It’s a catch-all elections bill that, to its credit, relies on the state legislative process, where these debates belong. As with its federal counterpart, some parts could improve election management and boost voter participation. But several of its headline items stand no chance surviving a conservative General Assembly. The bill’s going nowhere in its current form.

H.B. 542 sends a message about where progressives stand on election reform, tossing in a few nonpartisan crumbs to make the package seem more reasonable than it is.

My default assumptions

  • Decisions about managing elections should be made state-by-state, acknowledging that federal law trumps state statutes and state constitutions. Voters can interact more easily and effectively with a state decision-maker (preferably an elected public servant) than a federal official.

  • Election reforms should expand access to voting without undermining election integrity.

  • Communications about public issues deserve strong First Amendment protections.

I’d give parts of H.B. 542 good marks, others bad, and the rest incomplete (or needing more work). Since the House version has almost every Democratic member, including Minority Leader Robert Reives, as a co-sponsor, it deserves a deeper dive than a single newsletter can handle.

Let me break it up. I’ll do one good item, one bad, and one indifferent, and cover some of the others later.

The good

Extend revolving door period. Lawmakers can become lobbyists a mere six months after they leave office. Not surprisingly, a lot of legislators who have lobbying offers retire in June, before their term ends, so they can start lobbying the following January. This provision would extend the period to two years. Former lawmakers have lifetime floor privileges, so they can work the room for clients without restraint. This measure would force these connections to cool at least a bit before ex-legislators can cash in.

The bad

Nonpartisan appellate court elections. North Carolina voters have elected state judges for more than 150 years. Judges have run under a party label at least since ratification of the 1971 Constitution. As my friend and former John Locke Foundation boss John Hood noted, Democrats became quite annoyed in the 1990s and early 2000s when Republicans started winning elections for Court of Appeals and Supreme Court — even in years when Democrats were piling up big majorities in the General Assembly, on the Council of State, and in county commissions and school boards.

Republicans developed a reputation of being faithful to the text of the Constitution and state statutes in their rulings; Democrats, not as much. Voters preferred the predictability and integrity of constitutionalists. So in 2002, Democrats stripped partisan labels from appellate-judge candidates and set up public financing for judicial contests.

The moves wound up being messy and, as it were, undemocratic. A 2011 academic journal article found that voter participation in N.C. judicial races cratered when partisan identifiers disappeared. A possible explanation: Voters couldn’t distinguish among judicial candidates if they had no way of telling whether they were Republicans or Democrats, so they left those ballot lines blank. You didn’t know the players without a (partisan) program.

The public-financing component was declared unconstitutional in 2012 by a federal judge.

Appellate court races remained nonpartisan until late 2016, when the General Assembly restored partisan elections.

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Political science professor Chris Bonneau of the University of Pittsburgh made “The Case for Partisan Judicial Elections” in an article he submitted three years ago to a Federalist Society symposium. Bonneau said electing judges under party labels is the best means of picking judges at the state level. It’s often the only way, as we’ve found, voters can tell one candidate from another. 

He added that appointed judges can be beholden to the people who pick them, whether it’s lawmakers or a governor. Choosing them an independent panel lends secrecy to the process, seeding distrust.

No need to make the change in H.B. 542.

Needs more work

48-hour notice for legislative committee meetings. This would require all legislative committees and commissions to provide 48 hours’ notice before they meet. Great idea in theory, impossible to enforce in practice. The provision allegedly would prevent bills from being rushed to a final vote in the House or Senate without proper committee vetting or adequate notice for people to read the bill and contact lawmakers or interest groups or media members. The likely effect? Bills regularly would be amended on the floor without any committee vetting — something that happens all the time as sessions race to close. This provision would make the practice routine. It would inhibit transparency — but it might work if (in committee!) sponsors added an escape hatch or two. 

But wait … there’s more!

Also among H.B. 542’s “good” provisions: Online and automatic voter registration.

Bad: Super PAC limits, “independent” redistricting commission, public campaign fund.

Indifferent: Limit voter purging. Limit foreign influence.

I’ll deal with these in other entries. Stay tuned.

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Sorry, that’s ‘The Lion King’

No question. Of the actors handling the rebooted “Doctor Who” role, David Tennant is my favorite. (He’s also dynamite in a lot of other parts. If you like crime dramas, check out the first season of “Broadchurch,” for instance.) Tennant turned 50 over the weekend. My favorite scene from his first episode at the 10th Doctor, when he wasn’t quite himself.