North Carolina Legislature Repeals Popular 'Voter Owned Elections' Program

On Thursday night, the North Carolina House gave final approval to an anti-democracy elections overhaul bill that makes it harder to vote, allows more money into the political system, and repeals the state's public financing laws.
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On Thursday night, the North Carolina House gave final approval to an anti-democracy elections overhaul bill that makes it harder to vote, allows more money into the political system, and repeals the state's public financing laws, including the landmark judicial system. It now goes to Gov. Pat McCory for his signature.

The Nation's Ari Berman has a good analysis of the legislation, particularly the voter suppression elements.

The North Carolina Judicial Campaign Reform Act was passed by the state legislature in 2002, creating a full voluntary public financing system for state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races.

Candidates who opt into the program are required to collect a set number of qualifying contributions from people around the state to show broad public support. Once qualified, candidates receive a public grant to run their campaigns. The "Voter Owned Elections" program is paid for through a $50 assessment on attorneys and a voluntary $3 checkoff on the North Carolina state income tax form.

Allowing judicial candidates to run for office without relying on special interests that might appear before them in court just makes sense. As Court of Appeals Judge Wanda Bryant, who used the system after first being appointed by former Gov. Mike Easley, wrote in a 2007 op-ed, "Our country's judicial system exists so those appearing before the court are able to receive a fair and impartial hearing, with decisions being decided based solely on the evidence and the law. However, with millions of dollars flowing into judicial races -- and those giving money often appearing in front of those judges -- one begins to wonder about the independence of an elected judiciary." (You can also watch a video of Judge Bryant talking about the system)

The program has been popular. Between 2004 and 2010, 77 percent of candidates in contested general elections for the two Courts enrolled in the program, with a mix of Republicans and Democrats, incumbents and challengers, according to a report by Democracy North Carolina.

In 2007, the state expanded the "Voter Owned Elections" program to include three "Council of State" races: Commissioner of Insurance, State Auditor, and Superintendent of Public Instruction. In 2008, nine of the 11 candidates for those offices used the program.

As Democracy North Carolina points out, "Contributions from industries with financial ties to Council of State agencies dropped dramatically. In the Insurance Commissioner race, the total dollars donated by regulated industries dropped from 66 percent of the total contributions in 2004 to less than 5 percent in 2008."

The repeal of a popular public financing program defies common sense, but it also defies the people who have actually used it. In June, 14 of the 15 members of the Court of Appeals urged the legislature to maintain the system.

Unfortunately, the North Carolina legislature has decided wealthy and well-connected donors like Art Pope need a stronger voice in the state. Pope, who financed the Republican takeover of the legislature, was appointed the state budget director this year. He personally killed a compromise that would've kept the system in place.

In June, Public Campaign President Nick Nyhart and NAACP President Ben Jealous wrote, "People who think that money should have the primary voice in our society try to buy as many votes as they can. When that's not good enough, they increasingly invest in suppressing the voices of those most likely to object opposed to their agenda."

That voting rights and campaign finance changes are part of the same bill shouldn't be surprising--they are two sides of the same coin. People like Art Pope and the acolytes their big money elects want voters to count less and money to count more.

Thursday was a bad day for democracy in North Carolina, but the fight isn't over. The thousands of people who have attended Moral Monday protests in Raleigh, the 900 arrested at those events, the students arrested in Speaker Thom Tillis' office, and angry North Carolinians across the state will make sure of that. Assuming the governor signs the bill, legal challenges are expected too, both from in the state and possibly by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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