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Voting Rights In North Carolina Could Hinge On Its Supreme Court Election

It’s no secret that the U.S. Supreme court has a lot of power to influence the lives of Americans. But what about state supreme courts? Each state has its own supreme court, and justices are often elected. This November, two seats on the North Carolina Supreme Court are up for election. The outcome could affect voting rights and abortion access for years to come.


Transcript

We’re all familiar with the Supreme Court and how powerful it is. But each state had its own supreme court, which is also extremely influential in determining how far laws can go — including laws that govern some of the biggest issues in the country, like abortion, education and guns. While Congress and the president determine who sits on the U.S. Supreme Court, in most states, justices are elected. Here’s a look at the race in North Carolina — an election that could have big implications for voter protection in the state.

For years, the North Carolina Supreme Court has battled with the state legislature over elections. The court has repeatedly rejected district maps drawn by the General Assembly when it found them to be so extremely gerrymandered that they were unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the gerrymandering case this fall, and it could impact how much power state legislatures across the country have over redistricting and elections.

There are two seats up for election on the North Carolina Supreme Court this fall. They’re both currently held by Democrats, one of whom is running for re-election. Right now, Democrats hold a slim 4-3 majority on the court, so Republicans need to flip just one seat to hold a majority until at least 2024, when the next justice’s term ends.

While politics always plays somewhat of a role when it comes to placing justices on the Supreme Court, North Carolina actually had nonpartisan judicial elections for about 20 years. But in 2016, the Republican-led assembly changed the rules. Now, each party has a candidate on the general election ballot, along with information about a candidate’s party affiliation. The Republican assembly also changed the rules around funding judicial elections — they used to be publicly funded, but now candidates need to privately fundraise, opening up all kinds of thorny ethical issues and making the races increasingly expensive. As of the most recent filings, Democrats are greatly outraising their Republican opponents. Of course, money isn’t everything, even in politics. In fact, in the 2020 election for Supreme Court chief justice, Republican Paul Newby managed to beat Democratic incumbent Cheri Beasley by about 400 votes, despite Beasley raising about double what Newby did.

Whoever wins will likely have huge sway in North Carolina politics, as the court is almost certain to hear more election-related cases and possibly cases on abortion. With the stakes as high as they are, these won’t be races either party is leaving to chance.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.

Sophia Lebowitz is a video producer at FiveThirtyEight.

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