Exile on Jones Street: Welcome to the 2014 elections

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by Kirk Ross

Thank goodness most of North Carolina is sick of hearing about basketball.

Otherwise, people writing about the upcoming elections might be tempted to weave in some clever basketball analogies, which is ridiculous. In the upper echelons of Division 1 ball, anyone can beat anyone on a given night. Politics in North Carolina is nothing like that.

Once again, the biggest story of this election season is not how much is up for grabs, but how much of the ballot is already decided.

Like most years, the General Assembly races, or rather, the lack of them, are the best examples of a broken system, of the disconnect between current events and our electoral system and the almost unchecked power of the legislative branch of state government.

While “voter apathy” remains the favorite explanation for why turnout is so low during non-presidential years, the legislature’s ability to draw its own districts is a close second.

The backstory, you may recall, is that a well-targeted push by the GOP in 2010 — the last big non-presidential election — tipped the balance of the legislature ahead of the redistricting session, giving the new GOP control over the new district maps. The fact that the governor at the time was a Democrat didn’t matter, since when the legislature finally gave in and granted North Carolina governors veto power (1996, one of the last states to do so) they declined to allow for vetoes of redistricting legislation.

The legislative fiat combined with some well paid consultants well versed in the wonders of modern cartography yielded a hell of a set of maps. Subsequent challenges in state court have yet to bear fruit and by the time a federal court sees the case, the election of 2014 is likely to be long past.

The basic redistricting strategy was to pack Democratic voters, who outnumber Republican voters in terms of raw numbers, into Democratic districts. The result was a concentration of very safe, mostly urban, Democratic seats and a lot more relatively safe Republican seats.

As the impact of the new districts start to take hold here in North Carolina, you can understand why so many other states are going to independent commissions. The dynamic we’ve created causes all kinds of disruption to the idea of representative democracy — from stifling the kind of debate and discussion you see in hotly contested elections to recruiting qualified candidates or, in a lot of cases, any candidate at all.

You may have read recent headlines that this year nearly half of the races are all but decided. It is possible that in one or two cases a candidate could drop out or a high-profile write-in campaign blossom, but on paper, for now, 12 of the state’s 50 senators — four Democrats and eight Republicans — are running unopposed in both the primary and general elections. In House races, 43 out of 120 representatives — 21 Democrats and 22 Republicans — are similarly unopposed.

The names are familiar to Triad voters — Hanes, Parmon, Wade.

The only thing shaking up races here (and on down the I-85 Corridor toward Charlotte) is the race for Mel Watt’s former congressional seat, which led Democratic House members Alma Adams and Marcus Brandon to opt out of running for re-election in pursuit of the 12th Congressional District nomination.

While I’m sure that the incumbents running unopposed will be out doing some form of “campaigning,” voters will be deprived of the kind of substantive debate and discussion of a real election season.

But these races just represent part of the done deals of the 2014 elections since there are many more races that are statistically insurmountable.

Given the controversies of the past legislative session and all the heat and light created by those opposed to the direction of a legislature that is more conservative than the state as a whole, you’d think there would be more potential for change. But the gulf between passion and probability is particularly wide this year.

Depending on who you talk to, there are between 10 and 20 seats in the state House and only a handful in the state Senate that actually qualify as contests in the traditional sense of the word.

There’s a chance that we’ll see the US Senate race drive additional turnout, but right now it doesn’t look like there’s enough enthusiasm in either party to cause a substantial swing in the state legislature. Given the districts we’re dealing with and the amazing amount of cash likely to flow for the November elections, we may very well see more change happen as a result of the primaries than the general election.

Poll after poll highlights citizens’ frustrations with the direction of the state. The approval numbers of the legislature continue to hover below 30 percent. The frustrating thing is that the prospects for real change are far, far lower than that.