Partisanship, Everywhere, All at Once

March 20, 2023

We have covered before the increasing partisanship that state lawmakers are imposing on local county school boards across North Carolina. Although state law nominally makes elections for county school boards non-partisan, in recent years, lawmakers have increasingly carved out exceptions on a county-by-county basis using a legislative maneuver (local bills) that the Governor cannot veto. They made 7 counties’ elections partisan in 2016; 13 more in 2018; 2 in 2020; and 4 more in 2021/2022. Altogether, 41 of North Carolina’s 100 counties now elect their school boards with Republican/Democratic party labels, with several more proposed in this year’s legislative session:

The campaign to insert partisan labels, and thus partisanship itself, deeper into the fabric of North Carolina's local civic life is damaging, unnecessary, and driven by pure and misguided political calculation. It will harm the quality of local governance in our state (already not particularly enviable) and obscure, rather than illuminate, relevant information for voters. Lastly - and perhaps most of interest to its enthusiasts - it will not end well for Republicans.

Partisanship Everywhere

The increasing "partisan-ization" of North Carolina's school boards has been pushed almost exclusively by Republican lawmakers, mostly in Republican-leaning counties. School boards have been just one front of a much broader campaign to insert partisanship into more and more local decisionmaking.

This year, a State Senator from Union county wants to make the local election for their Soil and Water Conservation District partisan (Senate bill 27). A handful of state Representatives want to convert all municipal elections in Haywood and Madison counties to partisan status. Not long ago, several more radical Republican lawmakers proposed to simply make every single election conducted in North Carolina, at any level, partisan.

At the same time, Republican lawmakers have also dramatically reshaped our state's judiciary by abolishing non-partisan judicial elections, countering the national trend in the opposite direction. The utterly predictable - and intended - result has been a much more openly partisan, activist judiciary that sees itself as a political agent elected to enact a partisan agenda. As the state Supreme Court now calls "do-overs" on previously decided cases, showing breathtaking contempt for basic concepts of precedent in American law, partisan elections are the root cause.

This has all been done against a backdrop of intense public opposition. Partisan school boards, for example, are incredibly unpopular among every measurable group of voters - including parents:

Partisan judicial elections are nearly as unpopular:

When given a choice, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly prefer less partisanship, not more.

Universal partisanship's unintended consequences

The campaign for more partisanship will have many downstream effects - most of them negative, and not all that its campaigners hope for.

1. Voters will have less, and worse, information about candidates

To justify foisting partisan elections on constituents who don't want them, hardcore partisan activists have settled on a common argument: that partisan elections give voters more information about candidates than they would otherwise have, and thus equips them to make better choices. This claim collapses almost immediately upon contact with reality: what relevant information do party labels add to the Union County Soil and Water Conservation District? What information have nonpartisan school board races lacked until now?

The "information" that this claim surreptitiously refers to is whether a candidate is a Democrat or Republican. To partisans, this is all that matters, far more than whatever the actual elected office may be. That is why party labels, rather than candidate credentials or other qualifying criteria, is the only "information" they want voters to know.

2. Unaffiliated voters lose most of all

There are more unaffiliated voters in North Carolina than in either major party. Where do they fit into hyper-partisan races? In short, they don't. Partisan elections force independent or unaffiliated voters to choose a side in order to run, because only a candidate with a (D) or (R) next to their name will realistically win. Under non-partisan elections, these candidates have a fighting chance - and given the trajectory of voter registration in North Carolina, most voters would seem to prefer they do.

3. Greater enforcement of party loyalty

When all candidates running for any office must get the seal of approval from their local county party, those candidates will be expected to toe the party line, even on issues with no connection to the office they seek. The local Register of Deeds will be expected to take a position on same-sex marriage or abortion, and the county Clerk of Court on the war in Ukraine. Some of the kookier county parties in our state will demand positions on some of the highest-profile issues in the Republican base, such as Bill Gates' vaccine microchips, rooting out the Deep State, and Hunter Biden's laptop. If candidates are unable (or unwilling) to acquiesce to the most fervent partisan activists in their county party, they could easily find themselves stripped of the party imprimatur.

4. Worse local governance

In short, when candidates lose the ability to make their case on the basis of personal merit, and are forced to rely instead of partisan signaling, better candidates will suffer and worse ones will succeed. When all that matters is the letter next to a candidate's name, there is no advantage to competence.

A highly relevant example comes from strongly Republican Haywood County, where voters last fall chose a 21 year old UNC-Asheville student with no work experience as the new county tax collector because he was labelled on the ballot as a Republican. Haywood County later had to spend more taxpayer money and assume substantially more liability to secure a surety bond as a result, because - understandably - no firm was willing to trust that Haywood's taxes would be properly collected.

Cascade these effects over municipal, county and school board seats across counties, and the consequences for competent local governance will be disastrous.

5. It won't really help Republicans that much

It's obvious that the real reason Republican lawmakers are pushing partisan elections is so that they can elect more Republicans. In counties that vote reliably Republican, making more elections partisan will logically result in more Republicans being elected.

The hitch: reliably Republican counties are mostly small in population. Of the 10 counties that gave Trump his highest margin in 2020, only one has a total voter population over 45,000 (that would be Randolph, with 95,000 voters). Republicans will surely sweep all local offices in counties like these. By comparison, the 10 highest Biden-margin counties include 6 with populations over 100,000, and collectively account for 35% of all voters in the state. (See: The political geography of a changing North Carolina)

In short, most North Carolinians will continue to live in areas where Democrats are either firmly in control of local offices, or at least highly competitive. Most or all of those areas are also trending quickly towards Democrats, making it harder and harder for Republicans to get elected - so much so that some Republicans, in a triumph of irony, have even proposed making those specific counties' elections non-partisan. (See: The Wake Republican Endangered Species Act.)

Outside of the tiny crowd of rabid partisan junkies, very few people welcome the injection of more partisan politics into their daily lives. Yet that is precisely what Republican lawmakers are now foisting upon the unwilling people of our state. The move will exacerbate the urban-rural divide even further and worsen governance across wide swaths of the state - especially in areas those same Republican lawmakers represent. As they say: partisanship is one hell of a drug.

Help build progress for North Carolina.
Get in touch
PO Box 452, Carrboro, NC 27510

    Stay updated with us

    Stay Updated

    Receive the latest news from Carolina Forward