Ten Milestones in N.C. Politics for 2010
By Bob Hall
Democracy North Carolina
The past year has been filled with new achievements, for better or worse, that will help shape politics in North Carolina for the next decade and beyond. Here's a list of 10:
Slap-on-the-Wrist Felony: Mike Easley became the state's first governor convicted of a felony when he accepted a plea deal and a puny $1,000 fine related to a false campaign finance report filed by his campaign committee.
Federal and state prosecutors felt they achieved their goal of sending a message to politicians and the public that political corruption will not be tolerated, but the offense and fine didn't seem to match the lengthy investigation into the governor's many questionable activities.
Money Laundering: Two prominent political donors and business leaders - Rusty Carter of Wilmington and Fred Hobbs of Pinehurst - were each caught funneling large amounts of money through their employees to multiple candidates.
Hobbs paid $150,000 to the State Board of Elections - the largest civil fine it has ever levied; he awaits possible criminal prosecution, a potential story for 2011. Carter was convicted in court of a misdemeanor, and he also paid a $100,000 fine to the State Board. His case spurred the adoption of a new state law that makes an intentional violation of the campaign contribution limits involving over $10,000 a felony offense.
Outside Money: Republican candidates got a giant boost from a record amount of spending on General Assembly contests by outside electioneering groups, spearheaded by Rose's department store owner Art Pope.
Reports by the Institute for Southern Studies and NC FreeEnterprise Foundation linked Art Pope's family and company to $2.2 million spent against 27 Democratic state legislators; Republicans candidates won 20 of those races.
Republican Reconstruction: By blasting Democrats for bad ethics, high taxes, job losses and big government, a well-financed Republican Party rallied core supporters and swing voters and energized tea partiers to win majority control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in over 100 years.
Count All the People: In addition to shaping the redistricting process, the numbers from the 2010 Census will influence where businesses expand and where about $1,500 per person of public funds will be spent yearly by the federal and state government.
Communities and states had a big incentive to count everybody, and North Carolina stepped up to the challenge. It failed to gain a new congressional district, but it tied with South Carolina to rank as the state with the biggest increase in the rate of its residents returning Census forms.
Early Voters, New Voters: The overall 44 percent participation rate of registered voters in the 2010 election was not a record for midterm elections in North Carolina, but the 905,000 voters who used in-person early voting set a record for midterms - and 2010 was the first time that white Republican men led all demographic groups in the use of in-person early voting (black Democratic women led in 2008).
Early Registration for Teenagers: For the first time this year, North Carolina is allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote; they can't cast ballots at an earlier age, but they can sign up early and be automatically registered when they reach the eligible age to vote.
Public Courts: Despite talk that public campaign financing would collapse after the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, the state's voluntary program for statewide judicial candidates flourished in 2010.
Now eight years old, the program has finally achieved the record of being available in election cycles involving all 22 seats on the N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals.
Instant runoff voting: For the first time in U.S. history, instant runoff voting was used in a statewide general election - but, unfortunately, it was a low-profile, nonpartisan contest to fill a late vacancy on the Court of Appeals.
Once the State Board of Elections settled on a method for processing ballots, the system worked pretty smoothly, after a four-week break that allowed local officials to settle other election matters. About as many voters participated in the IRV election as in other Court of Appeals contests, and given the higher turnout rate of conservative voters in 2010, it's not surprising that the more conservative candidate ultimately prevailed.
Radiant sunshine: The 2010 legislature adopted a 25-page law requiring a host of new public records disclosure and ethics provisions, including: the first restrictions on an executive branch official becoming a lobbyist within six months of leaving office; mandates to create the first searchable databases of state-level campaign donations and of all state contracts over $10,000; the first requirement that all appointees to policymaking boards must list campaign donations over $1,000 made for the appointing official's campaign; and broad new authority given to the governor to adopt additional ethics standards for gubernatorial appointees and state employees.
Happy New Year!
Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, based in Raleigh.
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