One set of rules for all political races, please
The Asheville Citizen Times December 31, 2004

Two close elections for Council of State offices in North Carolina are becoming dangerously entangled in partisan politics. The result could be to undermine public faith in the election system.

When the counting was completed last month, Republican Steve Troxler led Democrat Britt Cobb by only 2,287 votes in the race for commissioner of agriculture, while Democrat June Atkinson was only 8,535 votes ahead of Republican Bill Fletcher in the contest for superintendent of public instruction. Both races are tied up in challenges and neither will be decided by Jan. 15, when new Council of State terms begin.

The sticking point in the agriculture race is 4,438 Cartaret County votes lost by a faulty electronic machine. The state Board of Elections ordered a new vote for the 4,438 and any other Carteret voters who did not go to the polls Nov. 2. A Wake County judge threw out that plan and told the board to do something else.

Cobb has argued that the only lawful remedy is a new statewide vote, while Troxler wanted the revote limited to the 4,438 whose votes were lost. The Board of Elections last week sided with Cobb on a straight party-line vote, with the three Democrats outvoting the two Republicans.

It takes four votes to call a special election, but the Democrats claimed that didn't apply because what they were doing was amending the previous motion for the special Cartaret vote. Maybe that reasoning will stand up under the inevitable court challenge, but the rationale seems shaky.

A broader question is at stake in the education race. Fletcher argues that the state constitution does not allow people to vote in a precinct other than the one in which they live. Some 14,000 of North Carolina's provisional ballots cast Nov. 2 were at polls other than the voter's home precinct.

Last week the N.C. Supreme Court blocked Atkinson, who had been declared the winner by the Board of Elections, from taking office until the matter is resolved. Arguments were scheduled for Jan. 18, three days after Atkinson was to have been sworn in.

Such drastic measures generally are undertaken when the alternative is irreparable harm. It's hard to see what difference it would make to Fletcher, assuming he winds up winning the race, whether he then would take over from Atkinson or from interim Superintendent Patricia Willoughby. But then, Fletcher is a Republican, and so are six of the seven Supreme Court justices, though elections are ostensibly nonpartisan.

A decision in Fletcher's favor also could affect the agricultural race, possibly making moot the question of the missing Cartaret votes. Whatever that decision is, it needs to be made quickly. The same applies in the education race, which undoubtedly will wind up before the Supreme Court as well.

Most importantly, there must be one set of rules for all races, regardless of the winner's party affiliation. Anything else could do incalculable harm to public confidence in those chosen for high state office.

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