Sunday, December 3, 2023

Candidate Filing and the Illusion of Choice

by Christopher Cooper

If you want to understand how you will be governed in 2025, the time to pay attention is now.

Candidate filing for the 2024 election in North Carolina kicks off today (Monday, December 4). From now until the end of filing on Friday, December 15th at noon, North Carolinians who want to run for elected office can fill out some forms, pay one percent of the salary for that office, and become a candidate. Of course, few of them do this quietly--there's usually an announcement, a web site, a social media blast, and a press release that accompanies the official application.

Although it might be tempting to discount these announcements as "just politics," this is the time where the lion's share of outcomes for the 2024 election are being determined.

In the three-course meal that is the American electoral process, the menu is being set.

There are preciously few competitive seats left in American politics and North Carolina is no exception. Just one of North Carolina's fourteen congressional districts is expected to be competitive in November. Save a massive upset, come January, 2025, three of North Carolina's congressional seats will be held by Democrats and ten by Republicans, with the partisanship of just one seat in question. 

The North Carolina General Assembly isn't much different. Using even the most generous definition of competitiveness, one party is virtually guaranteed victory in more than three-quarters of the state's 170 legislative seats.

For the vast majority of seats, then, the race to get on the ballot is arguably more important than the general election vote tallies, which are all but a foregone conclusion. It is in this invisible primary season that occurs behind the scenes before a single vote is cast when your choices are being made.

Consider a couple of examples from last week.

Erin Pare, a Republican who represents House district 27 in the North Carolina General Assembly announced that she was abandoning her run for District 13 in the United States House of Representatives and will instead run for re-election to the General Assembly. This changes the lay of the land--and the options for voters--for a federal and a state office simultaneously.

Democrat Caleb Rudow made the opposite decision--announcing that he was going to run for North Carolina's 11th congressional district, instead of running for re-election for his seat in the 116th district in the North Carolina General Assembly. His move created an opening for Democrat Brian Turner to declare his candidacy for NC-116. Turner will almost certainly win this seat; in 2020 Donald Trump won just 20 percent of the votes in this newly redrawn 116th. 

Casting our gaze back a few years, residents of Western North Carolina probably don't need (or want) to be reminded that the ignominious rise of Madison Cawthorn was made possible during this invisible primary season. When incumbent Mark Meadows announced his retirement from Congress just two days before the end of the filing period, there was a mad dash to declare candidacy for the 11th congressional district. The field was crowded and after a couple of primaries, Cawthorn won. His General Election victory was later secured not because he ran a terrific campaign, or had a lengthy resume of political accomplishments, but because the district leaned heavily towards the Republican Party. He won because he was on the ballot.

Apart from a few rumors of questionable validity, I don't know what will happen in the next two weeks. But I do know that if you want to understand where and and when your decisions as a voter and a citizen are determined, you should pay attention now. If you want to until the ballot is printed in November, in all but a few cases, it will be too late.


Dr. Chris Cooper is Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs and Director of the Haire Institute for Public Policy at Western Carolina University. He tweets, threads, and blue skies, at @chriscooperwcu. 

*A similar version of this piece appeared in the Asheville Citizen Times with the title "Candidate Filing Time in North Carolina is When Most 2024 Races are Determined."