My blog and newspaper column this week looked at the historically close race for North Carolina Chief Justice – the politics and mechanics of counting votes and deciding which votes should be counted. I learned a lot that I didn’t have room to use. Here are some highlights and sidelights.
Chief Justice is a powerful office.
How powerful? Well, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley shut down all the state’s courts because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Chief presides over not only the Supreme Court, but also the entire judicial branch of government and the state’s unified court system. She or he appoints the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The Chief’s hand reaches into every corner, every county and every courtroom of North Carolina.
The Chief Justice controls the Supreme Court’s calendar – which cases will or won’t be heard. She assigns cases to North Carolina’s Business Court, one of the busiest in the country. She appoints three-judge panels to hear cases bearing on key constitutional issues.
The political and policy stakes are high.
Before this election, the Supreme Court had six Democrats and one Republican. If Paul Newby wins, the Court will be 4-3 Democratic. And two Democratic seats are up for election in 2022.
Among the cases the court is likely to take up in the next two years: redistricting, voter ID and school vouchers.
The post-election period can matter as much as the campaign.
By Election Night, candidates, staffers and supporters are worn out physically, mentally and emotionally. But in a close contest like this, you have to get up and go again.
It happened in the Governor’s race in 2016. Governor Pat McCrory and Republicans challenged Governor Roy Cooper’s victory. McCrory didn’t concede until December 5.
But then the margin was over 10,000 votes. In the Chief Justice race, it’s just 401 votes.
Every vote does count.
Normally, we pay little attention to provisional votes that may or may not count or to mail-in ballots that weren’t accepted for one reason or another. But now, there are enough of those votes to change the outcome. Especially in a year when so many mail-in votes were cast.
Beasley’s campaign also requested a hand-eye recount to double-check ballots that may have been missed or misread by tabulating machines.
There’s a fundamental difference in how the two campaigns are approaching this. Beasley’s people focused on provisionals and mail-ins that weren’t counted. They concentrated, of course, on likely Democrats.
Newby’s campaign targeted thousands of mail-in votes that had been accepted. An analysis by The News & Observer says Black voters were disproportionately targeted.
One voter the Newby campaign challenged in Wake County is named Monica Laliberte. That’s the name of WRAL’s “5 On Your Side” reporter. Monica, check on your vote!
There are big differences between counties’ counting capacities.
The Beasley campaign said Robeson County had 1,300 provisional ballots out of about 41,000 votes cast. But Orange County, where twice as many votes were cast (almost 83,000), there were only about 60 provisionals. (Provisionals are votes that were cast but can’t be counted until questions are resolved about the voter’s eligibility.)
Why the disparity?
It’s because county election boards are funded by county commissioners. There are vast disparities in staffing, training, funding, experience and equipment. That all counts when it comes to counting.
Why is the race so close anyway?
Why is Beasley almost tied with Newby in an election that mostly went Republicans’ way?
Joe Biden lost North Carolina. Cal Cunningham lost. Other Democratic judicial candidates lost. Democratic challengers for Council of State lost. Democrats didn’t make hoped-for gains in the legislature.
Why did she do so much better than many Democrats? I have two theories.
First, incumbency. Incumbent Governor Roy Cooper and incumbent Attorney General Josh Stein won. Incumbent Senator Thom Tillis won. Incumbents won Council of State races. Being the incumbent helps.
Second, strategy. Beasley’s campaign was concerned about the drop-off that usually occurs down-ballot: people who vote for President or Senator or Governor, but don’t vote for Chief Justice. So, the campaign focused on 100 high-Democratic turnout precincts.
In the end, Beasley actually ran 11,000 votes ahead of Biden. Newby ran almost 63,000 votes behind President Trump, even though he was a regular at Trump’s rallies.
Beasley could still win if she loses.
President-elect Biden has promised that, if he gets the chance, he’ll appoint a Black woman to the United States Supreme Court.
Who better than a former Chief Justice from North Carolina?