Carolina Journal: Election laws have consequences

The following editorial was published in the April 2015 print edition of Carolina Journal and is published here with permission.

To the extent that Roy Cooper has a reasonable chance of defeating Gov. Pat McCrory for re-election, it’s because many of Cooper’s fellow Democrats failed in their efforts to change the electoral process in 1980s and early 1990s.

letter_logoThe Republicans running today’s General Assembly may want to keep that in mind as they consider several modifications to state election law. On the calendar are bills changing the composition of the Greensboro City Council and the Wake County Board of Commissioners, which in recent years have become dominated by Democrats. State lawmakers already have shifted the state’s presidential primary from May to February, and that move could cost North Carolina precious presidential delegates. The Republican National Committee vows to penalize states that try to mess around with its nominating schedule. If the February change stands, the Tar Heel State may be no more relevant in 2016 as it has been in recent election cycles.

With that in mind, remember 1984, when U.S. Rep. Jim Martin was elected governor of North Carolina. Martin was the second GOP governor of modern times and the first with the constitutional authority to run for re-election, an authority secured by his precedessor, Democrat Jim Hunt.

Martin won with 54 percent of the vote, a larger margin than Jesse Helms secured in his re-election bid for the Senate against Hunt. And Martin came into office with an ambitious agenda of tax cuts and government reforms that Democrats both didn’t like and feared might prove popular.

So shortly after Martin took office in 1985, leading Democrats began to strategize about how best to weaken his office, reduce his influence in Raleigh, and ensure that neither he nor any other Republican would hold the office for long.

During that session, both chambers of the General Assembly (controlled by Democrats) passed constitutional amendments repealing gubernatorial succession and moving North Carolina’s non-federal elections to odd-numbered years. Democrats figured that without help from GOP presidential candidates at the top of the ticket, Republicans would have no chance in races for governor, legislature, and other offices.

Both were set to go before voters in 1986. But neither measure became law. One reason is that Democratic leaders had second thoughts. What if these changes proved to be so unpopular that they hurt Democrats with the voters? And what if electoral patterns changed? Democrats refused to campaign for the second measure and the General Assembly repealed the succession amendment before it reached the ballot.

In 1991, Senate Democrats passed an amendment switching the Council of State races from the presidential cycle to the midterm cycle. It died in the House. Had voters adopted that amendment, Roy Cooper might have had his showdown with McCrory in 2014, a GOP-friendly year.

So the message to today’s North Carolina Republicans is this: Change an electoral rule if it makes sense on the merits, but don’t do it assuming that your party will benefit.

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