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Partisan elections bill pushed by Pless is down, but not out

Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) speaks in Maggie Valley in July, 2022. Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) speaks in Maggie Valley in July, 2022. Cory Vaillancourt photo

After months of pushing for partisan municipal elections in the counties he represents, Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) has again come up short — for now.

“I move that the Senate do not concur on Senate Bill 9,” said Wake County Democratic Sen. Gail Adcock, in the North Carolina Senate on Aug. 16.

Adcock’s move was unusual in that Senate Bill 9 was her bill, but included in it were provisions that would have given Pless the victory he’s been seeking for nearly 16 months. Senators supported Adcock’s motion with a voice vote.

Pless introduced a bill in in May 2022 that would have made all elections in Haywood County partisan.

The bill, which stalled in committee, prompted outcry from elected officials, who opposed it overwhelmingly. Pless said it would help voters identify what candidates stand for and the political positions they support. Opponents, like Waynesville Town Council Member Chuck Dickson, said that national party platforms have little to do with small-town governance.

Pless then went on to introduce a similar bill in the House this year, on March 2.

That bill omitted Haywood’s elected school board, but expanded to include Madison County, which Pless also represents. Again, the bill died in committee after eliciting strong opposition from nearly every elected official that it would have affected.

But on June 28, Pless was able to get his partisan election language inserted into SB 9, which was first introduced by Adcock and fellow Wake County Democratic Sen. Sydney Batch on Jan. 25.

Originally, the bill authored by Adcock and Batch had nothing to do with Haywood or Madison counties, but Pless’ partisan ploy proposed that the Haywood and Madison county municipalities of Canton, Clyde, Maggie Valley, Marshall, Mars Hill and Waynesville would be required to conduct partisan elections, effective immediately.

The bill would not take effect in the Madison County town of Hot Springs until 2025, because Abby Norton, mayor of Hot Springs, is a federal employee.

Per the Hatch Act, she wouldn’t be allowed to run in a partisan election. She told The Smoky Mountain News on March 3 that she felt she was being forced to make a choice between retiring from her job, or retiring from politics.

Had the bill passed, it would have raised some logistical nightmares for municipalities, candidates and election workers just over 80 days before municipal elections are scheduled to take place on Nov. 7.

Municipalities where partisan primaries weren’t taking place would have to pay for an extra election. Last year, Waynesville’s town manager estimated his cost at around $13,000.

Candidates across North Carolina already filed to run for office during the two-week filing period, which ended July 21. Nothing in the bill says when candidates would be expected to re-file or how they might amend their filings to include the required party affiliation. Likewise, unaffiliated candidates — of which there are several — would find themselves in terra incognita.

Election workers at the county boards of election would be responsible for ironing out all the changes — in addition to the introduction of voter ID and other election-related legislation that some call confusing.

Waynesville Town Council Member Anthony Sutton has been one of the most vocal elected leaders to speak out against the bill.

“The maneuvering with this bill is the exact reason people are frustrated with some politicians because they don’t want to debate a bill or hear from the people that it would affect, such as the constituents of Haywood County,” he said shortly after the Senate vote.

But the bill’s not quite dead yet. After Adcock’s motion passed, Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) rose and asked that Adcock, along with Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) and fellow Republican Sen. Phil Berger — president pro temp of the Senate from Guilford County — be appointed as a committee to review the bill and resolve any changes. Hise represents a small portion of eastern Haywood County. 

It’s not yet clear when that committee might meet, or what those changes might be.

At the beginning of the session, Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Franklin) was recognized by Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson as one of several senators who had an excused absence. Social media reports show Corbin vacationing with family out west.

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