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Voters, Officials Believe Voter Guide Worked
By J. Barlow Herget
Published: Aug. 8, 2005
RALEIGH - Sometimes it helps to step back and see where you've been.
And North Carolina has been going to some new places, notably with its campaign and election practices.
Last year, voters and candidates took out the new public financing system -- the Judicial Campaign Reform Act of 2002 -- for its first drive, and as they say in Mississippi, it done good.
There were some glitches. The races officially are nonpartisan, but few of the candidates hid their party affiliations, and some candidates benefited from official party endorsements.
The fuel tank, the Public Campaign Fund, is financed primarily by a $3 check-off on the state income tax form. It ran short on gas. Not enough voters marked the check-off box on their 2004 tax returns. If they filed their taxes on their computer, many didn't even have the right question to check. But generous citizens and a one-time appropriation from the General Assembly pushed the system across the finish line.
The overall performance, however, made progress. Candidates liked the system and their participation limited campaign spending, one of the program's goals. The outrageously expensive and sleazy court campaigns in Illinois and West Virginia made North Carolina's look like a Baptist homecoming.
One of the parts that ran surprisingly well with voters was the Voter Guide that was mailed to all North Carolina households. The Act called for the publication of such a guide. It provided brief biographies of the judicial candidates “followed by each candidate's personal statement about why he or she should be elected,” according to a survey taken by the North Carolina Center for Voter Education (NCCVE) shortly after the 2004 election.
People running for judgeships are about as well known as editorial writers who are anonymous. If a judicial candidate goes into a bar like Cheers, no one knows his name.
Voters admit as much. A survey among people who didn't vote for judges in 2004 showed 73 percent confessed, “I didn't know anything about the candidates.”
Perhaps that's why 60 percent of respondents in the same NCCVE survey said they found the Voter Guide helpful and would like to see it expanded. The idea was popular among conservatives and liberals alike.
The guide in 2004 cost about $500,000 to print and mail. That's a bargain considering that it was sent to several million households.
Kim Westbrook Strach, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, recounted last year's experience: “We were a little short of funds and were not sure if we were going to have enough money to do the guide and mail it. For the primary, we put the Voter Guide on our Web site. For the general election, we produced them and mailed them out.”
The responses from voters, all anecdotal, “were very positive,” says Strach. “People were very happy to have information about the judicial process and voter registration as well as the candidates.”
There was one flaw. Statute prevented the guide in the general election from being mailed early enough for people who opted for early voting during the first weeks of that process.
Says Strach, “There's legislation to change that.”
Financing the Public Campaign Fund remains a challenge. Revenues from the income tax check-off this year are still being counted. Through June, Kim Brooke, public information officer for the state Department of Revenue, counts about $950,000 in the fund.
“It's difficult to predict what's going to happen. We don't have a full year of statistics, so we cannot tell what will come in during the rest of the year,” she says.
One source of revenue is a $50 contribution asked of any lawyer obtaining his or her state license. Lawyers, who tend to be among the biggest contributors in past judicial campaigns, weren't very generous, however, with their $50 donations at license fee time.
State Sen. Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, was a loyal supporter of the Judicial Campaign Reform Act, and he was “generally pleased” with its first test in 2004.
He also believes the $50 should be a mandatory fee for lawyers. “I proposed and still support a $50 fee,” he says. Money from such a fee would pay for the Voter Guide and then some.
Rand, the N.C. Senate Majority Leader, continues to work on his proposal in the current session. Asked about its chances for approval, Rand replies, “We haven't abandoned it.”
Next year's election is closer than you think. In state appellate court races, there will be at least six seats open; three on the N.C. Court of Appeals, and two terms expire on the N.C. Supreme Court. Separately, Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, Jr., must retire.
The Voter Guide and the new publicly financed campaign system worked in 2004. It's time to step forward and get them ready for 2006.