Judges races: really, really, really important!

Judges races: really, really, really important!
March 17
09:45 2022

By Howard Pearre

Have you ever looked at the top of the ballot on election day and quickly selected your choices for president, senator, and representative? And because you were familiar with the candidates for the school board and mayor, you made those selections? Then, looking further down the ballot to the judges section, you realized you didn’t know a thing about these people and wound up making random selections or skipping that section entirely? 

I have.

And I know I am not alone. Many voters find it overwhelming to even bone up on the political folks at the top and the middle of the ballot, let alone those running for judgeships. Of course, all the races are important. But the judges’ races, which grab less attention than the marquee races at the top of the ballot, are really important.

Here’s a recent example of why these races are critically important and deserve close attention: redistricting.

As a result of the 2020 U.S. Census, North Carolina’s increased population allowed it to pick up a 14th representative. The voting districts that had been devised to send 13 representatives to Washington in the past needed to be reconfigured for 14.

State legislatures have the responsibility for redistricting to accommodate population changes. And when they do, they also have the opportunity to realign how voters’ neighborhoods are bunched together to select legislators, mayors, city councils, school boards, judges, and so forth.

As the Republican Party currently holds a majority in the NC Legislature, it got to have the most say about how those districts would be devised. As usual, the devising was contentious, and this time it resulted in heavy-duty court action. 

The Republican-led legislature carried out its responsibility last November by drawing new maps for U.S. House, N.C. House, and N.C. Senate candidates. (The U.S. Senate “district” is the entire state and thus was not affected.) The new maps included a number of districts that gave significant advantage to the Republican Party for elections through 2030. Some news sources reported that the maps likely would result in 10 of the 14 seats almost always going to Republican candidates, even though recent statewide elections indicate a much closer ratio of Democratic to Republican voters in the state. 

Illegal gerrymandering?

Immediately after the new maps were submitted, several groups claimed that some of the districts constituted illegal gerrymandering which diluted Black voting strength, and that the advantage Republican candidates would have until the next U.S. Census also was unconstitutional.

The suit’s first stop was with a three-judge panel. In January, these judges admitted that the maps actually did constitute racial and partisan gerrymandering, but said that the courts should not meddle with the legislators’ will. The panel ruled that the new maps were acceptable. 

The suing groups appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court. On Feb. 4, the Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, reversed the panel’s decision. The maps would have to be redrawn quickly in order to accommodate the primary election that had been moved from March to May 17.

One-vote margin

The N.C. Supreme Court ruled by a one-vote margin (!) against the state’s congressional delegation being heavily skewed Republican. Four Democratic-registered justices to three Republican-registered justices. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that had the numbers been reversed by one, the decision would have gone the other way.

The legislators submitted a second set of maps. These, too, were rejected by the N.C. court and replaced by maps drawn by an independent panel. 

At this point, the Republican legislators appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, on Monday, March 7, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case and thereby gave a final go-ahead to the independently drawn maps. According to some reports, this likely will result in seven Republican and six Democratic representatives being elected in November, with one district’s race too close to call. With the original maps, predictions were that ten Republicans and four Democrats would have been elected. 

It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of the critical importance of every race, including the down-ballot races for judgeships. Every court, every city council, every school board, is comprised of only a handful of members, and every decision has the potential to be decided by a single-vote margin.

For an excellent non-partisan resource for judicial races from the N.C. State Board of Elections, Google NC JUDICIAL VOTER GUIDE. The board of elections also mails this guide in print format to every voting household prior to elections.

Howard Pearre retired after a career as a counselor and manager with N.C. Vocational Rehabilitation and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. He has led training workshops on voter registration and is a board member with Winston-Salem Writers.

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