NAACP, Dems hit McCrory for lengthy vacancy in heavily black congressional seat

North Carolina Democrats and African-American leaders are calling on Gov. Pat McCrory (R) to schedule an earlier special election for the seat of former congressman Mel Watt (D-N.C.), who was recently confirmed as head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

McCrory has said the special election for the remainder of Watt's term will be held on the regular Election Day, Nov. 4, with the winner serving until the 114th Congress is sworn in early January.

Democrats note that, since Watt resigned from the House on Jan. 6, this would leave his heavily African-American seat vacant for more than 300 days.

According to a Washington Post review, it would also be the longest period between a House vacancy and a special election in at least 50 years.

"What we are seeing from Gov. Pat McCrory, this legislature and many of his colleagues in the right wing of the Republican Party is an extreme pattern of denial," Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP, said Tuesday. "This is taxation without representation."

Two members of North Carolina's congressional delegation, Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), have also sent a letter asking McCrory to reconsider.

McCrory has noted that scheduling a separate special election would cost the state money (more than $1 million). And he has gotten some backup from the Charlotte Observer, whose editorial board noted that holding a special election likely wouldn't install a new member until July -- because the state requires a runoff in the primaries if no candidate gets enough of the vote.

“Rev. Barber’s continued litigation games both mislead the public and waste needed taxpayer dollars for education and other priorities," said Ryan Tronovitch, a spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party. "These PR stunts have gotten to the point of being ridiculous and should no longer be taken seriously."

If McCrory doesn't change course, the span between the vacancy in Watt's seat and the special election would be the longest in more than 50 years -- by a hair -- according to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

The current longest period between a resignation and a special election over the last five decades was in 2006, when there were 295 days between then-Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) resigning his seat Jan. 16 for a Senate appointment and a special election held on Election Day later that year. Watt's would be 302 days.

The length of the vacancy in Watt's seat, however, likely wouldn't be unprecedented. In 1966 and 1990, two seats were vacant for well more than 300 days because there was no so-called "lame duck" session after Election Day, and the winner of the special election wasn't sworn in until January.

Watt's district is 49 percent African American and is expected to be won by a Democrat.

Update 5:36 p.m.: In a response letter to Price and Butterfield, McCrory writes that he made the "simplest, least costly and least confusing option."

Here's the full letter:

Dear Representatives Butterfield and Price:

I recently learned of your concerns through the media regarding the special election to fill the vacancy in the 12th Congressional District.  Unfortunately, you decided that the best way to inform me of your concerns was via press release instead of a simple phone call.  Had you called me prior, I would have gladly spoken with you and cleared up the many misconceptions in your letter about the special election.

Numerous factors were taken into consideration when I reviewed the dates of the special election.  Chief among these were reducing voter confusion, minimizing the cost to counties and the ease of election administration.  Fairness to all potential candidates—Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated—was also a consideration.  In the end, holding the special election on the same days as the general election was the simplest, least costly and least confusing option.

Given Representative Watt’s resignation date and state and federal election law requirements, our options were limited.  According to the Board of Elections, the earliest date we could have our first special primary was March 25.  The second primary would have been June 3.  The general election to fill the vacancy would have been in late July or early August.

Having the election on these dates would’ve had voters going to the polls six times in eight months.  It would have cost more than $1 million.  Staggered election dates would have forced counties to keep two different sets of poll books to determine who was eligible to vote in which election.  Counties and voters would have had to deal with overlapping voter registration deadlines, multiple early voting periods and multiple canvass periods.

With these complications, I decided that having six elections was out of the question, and that having the election on already scheduled dates was the better solution.  Using the already scheduled election dates, the earliest we could have held the special election was September 16.  This is only seven weeks away from the November 4 regularly scheduled election.

You also note that six vacancies in the House of Representatives were filled on earlier timetables.  But you failed to consider the dates when these vacancies occurred.  Each occurred well before any overlap with the general election schedule was possible.  The closer a vacancy occurs to the general election schedule, the more complicated it becomes to set special election dates.  You also failed to consider the differences in state election laws.  Each state fills a vacancy differently.  For example, some states do not hold primaries, and instead allow political parties to nominate candidates.

This was a complex decision with many variables to consider.  A simple schedule, where the voters have ample time to evaluate the candidates, and the candidates have ample time to campaign, was the best option. Some Democratic candidates have had no objection, calling the schedule “familiar and fair” and “great timing” that “will give voters ample opportunity to look at the different candidates.”

For the future, please keep in mind that I always welcome calls from our state’s U.S. Congressional Delegation.  Thank you for your continued service to the State of North Carolina.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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