North Carolina voters turned out in record numbers this year as did voters across the nation, but a close look at the numbers indicates a significant gap between those interested only in the major races and those who saw the importance of all the issues on the ballot.
Historians and pollsters will look with pride at the record setting numbers posted by voters. Statewide 75.3% of registered voters, 7,359,798, cast ballots. Carteret County likewise recorded historic numbers with 42,848 voters, 82.7 %, showing up at the polls. But most of those votes went to the major races for President, Governor and U.S. Senate with declining interest in key down ballot races.
The obvious lack of votes for the down ballot races is indicative of a lack of interest and, or, knowledge that these races are important despite the fact that they have long term impacts on the state and its citizens.
Of particular note was a 25% decline in votes cast for judicial races, especially the N.C. Supreme Court race that pitted three Republicans, Justice Paul Newby, Phil Berger and Tamara Barringer against current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, Lucy Inman and Mark Davis.
With the exception of the Newby-Beasley race for Chief Justice, which is going to a recount because of the 474 vote differential that is less than one-half of one percent, the other two races were awarded to the Republican candidates. If former Justice Newby eventually wins the seat as chief justice the court will then consist of three Republicans and four Democrats.
Unquestionably the key motivator for voter turnout was President Trump. Both President Trump and his opponent, former Vice President Biden, garnered historic numbers. The same can be said of both the gubernatorial race between incumbent Roy Cooper, who won his re-election campaign against Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and incumbent U.S. Senator Thom Tillis who was victorious over Democrat Cal Cunningham.
And though those top of the ballot races were important so were the judicial races.
Previous editorials have noted that litigation, particularly at the state appellate and supreme court level have influenced and, in several cases, actually made state law. Cases involving two constitutional amendments passed by the voters, the voter ID act and a legislative cap on state income taxes, will soon be coming before the state supreme court for a final determination. There is a good possibility that once the Republican-led legislature concludes its decennial redistricting, litigation will follow which will end up at the state’s highest court.
With the growing complexities of state and local governance and the propensity of legal suits by dissatisfied groups, legislative decisions, as in the federal arena, are being adjudicated by the courts. This makes court races critically important.
The state’s Republican party was very lucky this year to have won any of the three N.C. Supreme Court seats considering how little effort was provided in their campaigns. If Republicans want to have any impact on what is becoming the de facto legislature, or as one pundit has described the state Supreme Court, “a super legislature,” then they will have to work harder to educate and motivate their supporters.
The political parties should no longer rely on the coat tails of key races. They are going to have to provide information that will motivate voters based on the facts and less on personalities otherwise the voters will ignore the opportunities that elections provide and relinquish these seemingly lesser decisions to an elite group of partisans.