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Bad for the center, bad for the state

Deciding the Elena-Botella-slate-card for each election is one of the most exciting and challenging parts of living in a democracy. Most choices end up being pretty simple; in both the North Carolina General Assembly and in the U.S. Congress, I know Republicans tend to vote as a uniform bloc with incredible discipline against almost every policy I hope for, and in favor of almost every policy that gives me the heebie-jeebies. North Carolina has a lot of non-partisan elections (including all of the municipal elections in Durham) and judicial elections—these all require a more careful selection of candidates. Judicial elections, I’ll admit, are among the most challenging to select my preferred candidate for, in part because I sometimes worry whether or not I have the expertise necessary to select good judges. To come to an informed decision, I read their candidate questionnaires to hear from the judicial candidates in their own words, and supplement that information with the endorsements published by groups that generally tend to align with my own views (the Democratic Party, IndyWeek and Durham People’s Alliance).

N.C. House Bill 64 (Senate Bill 47), which is currently in the House Committee on Elections, would considerably simplify the Elena-Botella-judicial-candidate-selection-proccess—but not in a good way. It would return judicial elections to a partisan basis, with candidates selected by party primaries and where their affiliations are listed on the ballot. This process would cause North Carolina to push out many moderate judges altogether, and while it would be easy for me to mostly choose judges with a big “D” next to their name, the quality of judges would decline overall. In this column, I’ll be comparing partisan judicial elections explicitly to non-partisan judicial elections, as opposed to other forms of judicial selection like appointment or by a non-partisan commission. To understand why partisan election of judges is so pernicious, we have to think about the process in two steps: what happens during the primary, and what happens during the general election.

A major reason people are dissatisfied with the current political system is that it’s “missing the middle.” The voters in party primaries tend to be quite liberal or quite conservative, and they pick candidates during the primaries that lean far to the left or far to the right. Let’s ask ourselves: Do we want judges to be subjected to this process or do we want a system that favors putting centrists on the bench?

It may surprise some readers, but, especially in local and state elections, North Carolinians tend to vote Democratic. 2010 was the first year since Reconstruction, e.g. since the 1800s, that both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly have been controlled by Republicans, and registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 750,000 people. 2010 was an ugly year politically for our state (if anyone remembers running into me on the day after election night, I apologize for my despondency), but municipal elections throughout N.C. in 2011 demonstrated that North Carolina is still trending blue.

What does this mean? More Democrats would probably be elected to judicial office than would Republicans if House Bill 64 were passed. Despite that, I think House Bill 64 would result in judges of poorer quality. Why? I would rather have centrist judges all of the time, then have very liberal judges 60 percent of the time and very conservative judges 40 percent of the time. I love it when non-partisan races force voters to step beyond their party paradigms, ushering in candidates with political opinions, belief sets and platform planks that aren’t strictly red or strictly blue. They both allow and force candidates to reach across party lines. Judges stand on their merits, rather than on their ideological accountability, bringing some immensely qualified judicial thinkers to the bench.

After the primaries, what happens on election day itself? Will mentions that candidates with a party history might exercise better judgement, and that party affiliation provides useful information; in the status-quo, parties can and do endorse. Those wondering what opinions the political parties have on the candidates can easily access these endorsements. In many cases, both the Republican and Democratic parties will endorse the same judges. Listing party affiliation on the ballot doesn’t provide even semi-informed voters any additional information about party ties—it only facilitates straight-ticket voting, and gives a tiny nugget of information to voters who know nothing else about the judges. In the absence of the “D” or “R,” data shows that uninformed voters recuse themselves from races they know nothing about. In our last columns about the Durham City Council elections, Will condemned straight-party voting, urging Duke students to vote for a candidate if, and only if, they had carefully researched his or her positions. If straight-ticket voting is so problematic, why should we facilitate it?

Will and I agree upon more than it would seem—often times, we reject column ideas that one of us suggests upon realizing that we agree. I love debate, but I aspire for a third way, for a political system based on cooperation, rather than conflict. House Bill 64 is a step in the wrong direction.

Elena Botella is a Trinity junior and the co-president of Duke Democrats. Her column runs every other Tuesday.

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