RALEIGH, NC -- November 11 -- North Carolina's voters experienced a number of changes when they voted recently in state judicial races. New laws made statewide races for judge nonpartisan, established a public financing program to fund judicial races, and created a new state voter guide with information about the candidates running for judge.
In the five appellate court races on this year's ballot, including one open seat with eight candidates running for one position on the Supreme Court, 12 of the 16 candidates qualified for public financing. Two others tried but failed to raise enough in qualifying funds to participate. Only two of the sixteen candidates opted out. Four winners used public financing, while the fifth winner enrolled but failed to qualify for the program.
While voters were getting used to these changes, they got a break from some of the worst aspects of politics: million-dollar media campaigns, highly charged negative ads, and special interests spending big money to influence elections.
Around the country, states that elected judges did so in some of the most expensive, and nastiest, races in history. Provisional figures indicate that candidates have raised at least $38 million-compared to $29 million in 2002. When final figures are in, this cycle might break the national record of $45 million set in 2000. Special interest groups pumped in at least $9 million, and more was spent but not yet disclosed. Nine different Supreme Court candidates were forced to raise over $1 million.
For example, in a single Illinois Supreme Court race, two candidates raised more than $8.9 million-a new national record-and the total may well break $10 million when final reports come in. In West Virginia candidates topped $2.8 million. Special political groups classified as "527 groups" due to their special tax status spent at least $4.5 million more in W.V., where an organized effort to oust incumbent Justice Warren McGraw was successful after it declared him a "radical" and "pro-rapist".
"Even as special interests pour record millions into judicial elections in other states, North Carolina has become the nation's number-one model for reform," said Bert Brandenburg, acting executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a Washington- based group that monitors judicial elections across America. "Judges (in North Carolina) don't have to dial for dollars, voters have information on judicial candidate, and special interests no longer have a seat in the courtroom."
North Carolina was able to buck these trends due to their new public campaign financing system for judicial elections, says Chris Heagarty, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education. North Carolina's program offered public financing to qualifying statewide judicial candidates who agreed to abide by strict fundraising and spending limits.
"Around the country we saw more dollars spent, more nasty attack ads, and more special interest influence over judicial elections -- usually in the form of false or misleading attacks on judges," said Heagarty, "But in North Carolina, most of our candidates enrolled in the new public campaign system and said no to special interest money, or voluntarily abided by the same standards if they weren't in the program."
Heagarty pointed to the new program as giving judges the funds they needed to get positive messages out about their experience and protections built into the program that gave candidates matching funds to respond to nasty special interest group attacks.
"Because the new law gave our candidates the ability to respond to special interest attacks, from the political left or right, I think many groups stayed out of North Carolina because they knew that our candidates now had the resources to fight back and set the record straight," he said.
North Carolina's new law provides candidates that participate in the public financing program "rescue money" to match dollars spent on attacks against them by outside groups or candidates who don't participate in the program.
Also, new judicial voter guides produced by the NC State Board of Elections gave all the candidates the opportunity to communicate directly to voters and share their experience, qualifications, and campaign messages without having to rely on slick campaign materials. The judicial voter guides were mailed to every household in the state, though some arrived after early- voting had begun.
The voter guides and the public campaign funds were made possible by the NC Public Campaign Fund. Money was allocated to the Fund via several means, primarily through a check-off box on the state income tax form that moved three dollars to the program for every person who marked "yes." Checking yes had no impact of the amount of taxes paid, or refund received, as the three dollars came from a pre-existing general state fund.
"Some of the voters in North Carolina may been unprepared for the changes," said Heagarty, "but the new law really protected us from the kinds of trash that have infected judicial elections around the nation. We hope people who don't like that kind of negative campaigning will remember to support the Public Campaign Fund on their tax form next year."
The N.C. Center for Voter Education is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization based in Raleigh, with the goal of increasing informed voter participation through research, education and outreach.