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Guest Editorial: Lawmakers err in increasing partisan offices

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They should have seen it coming. And in all likelihood, they did. But that didn’t stop the General Assembly’s Republican majority from politicizing races for local boards and judgeships that should be anything but political.

For Republicans, requiring that judicial candidates and those seeking seats on some city councils and school boards to list their party membership was just one more way of getting control of the political process, right down to the most grassroots level. In doing it, they were walking a path already laid out by Democrat-controlled legislatures in the past.

But North Carolina’s political landscape has changed in the past decade or two. The fastest-growing voter registration in the state is “unaffiliated.” With more than 2 million registered, unaffiliated voters are about to surpass Republicans for second place in registrations and if the trend continues, they’ll pretty quickly challenge Democrats as the largest voter group.

But state law treats them differently, if they’re running for many offices. The new laws forcing partisanship into places where it doesn’t belong give unaffiliated voters extra hurdles to get on a ballot, requiring them to collect a substantial number of signatures on a petition before they can become a candidate. For Democrats and Republicans, the requirement is different: They only need their own signature, plus the filing fee, to get onto the ballot. And serving on the State Board of Elections and Ethics, or on local elections boards, is out of the question: By law, only registered Democrats and Republicans can serve.

There’s already at least one casualty. Incumbent Cleveland County Board of Education member Kathy Falls, who is registered unaffiliated, was excluded from running for re-election by the new law. She had a June 30 deadline to submit a petition signed by 2,600 voters to qualify for the ballot. On June 29, the law was changed to include the petition requirement.

Candidates from county commissioner to Congress will be required to submit those petitions if they choose not to be a Republican, Democrat or Libertarian.

We’re having a hard time understanding how applying different standards to candidates for the same position makes sense, let alone how it’s constitutional.

And it doesn’t begin to address a more fundamental issue: Why are we allowing our lawmakers to politicize government entities that shouldn’t be compromised by politics? That’s especially true when it comes to our judgeships, which should be about interpreting and applying the law, without regard to political considerations. And a city council? Really? That’s a body that’s dealing in strictly local issues. So is a school board. If a candidate wants to tell voters that he or she is a fundamental conservative or a progressive, that’s what campaign advertising is for. But forcing a candidate to choose between parties — and thus the platforms dictated by party leaders — is just plain wrong.

Injecting more party politics into local boards and judgeships is bad policy. Forcing unaffiliated voters to jump through extra and difficult hoops is even worse.

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