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Control of NC's high court is at stake in November. Which party leads in a new WRAL News poll

Posted October 4, 2022 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated October 4, 2022 7:50 p.m. EDT

— A pair of judicial races in North Carolina could have major implications over the future of access to abortion and voting in the state.

Four candidates vying for two state Supreme Court seats are seeking to bolster the court’s reputation amid concerns the seven-member body has become increasingly driven by politics in its recent decisions.

The partisan nature of the state’s judicial elections alone are an ongoing gripe among many North Carolina voters, according to a new WRAL News poll. And that issue is likely to loom large if the court weighs in on contentious cases that determine how congressional voting lines are drawn and whether stricter restrictions on abortion could be put into effect.

North Carolina’s high court includes four Democrats and three Republicans, but that could change with the Nov. 8 election.

To flip the state Supreme Court back in their favor, Republicans must win at least one of two seats up for grabs. With five weeks until Election Day, the GOP appears to be on stronger footing, according to a WRAL News Poll released on Tuesday. But undecided voters sway the races either way.

Dietz leads Inman in NC Supreme Court race

Republican Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dietz is leading Democratic Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman in his bid to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Associate Justice Robin Hudson, the poll shows. The survey shows Dietz with 37% support and Inman with 32%. Thirty-one percent of respondents were undecided.

Allen, Ervin in statistical tie

Meanwhile, Republican Trey Allen is in a statistical tie with Democratic state Supreme Court Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV. Allen has 39% support, Ervin has 37%. Twenty-four percent of respondents were undecided in that race.

The poll, which was conducted in partnership with SurveyUSA from Wednesday through Sunday, surveyed 677 registered North Carolinians who are likely to vote in the election. It reported a credibility interval of 4.4 percentage points. A credibility interval is similar to a margin of error but takes into account more factors and is considered by some pollsters to be a more accurate measurement of statistical certainty.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Walker launched a group this summer called Win the Courts in an effort to elect Dietz, Allen and four Republican candidates for the state Court of Appeals. He said he’s seen similar polling results and would give Dietz and Allen a 75% chance and 60% chance of winning, respectively. “Judicial overreach is at stake,” Walker said.

Bobbie Richardson, chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, thinks the stakes are even greater.

“If Republicans take the Supreme Court, they will allow partisanship to unravel the very fabric of North Carolina’s democracy—restricting our reproductive freedoms, our voting rights and perhaps even the constitutional rights and freedoms of our most vulnerable communities,” Richardson said in a statement. “Now is not the time for apathy.”

Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist who analyzes voting trends in North Carolina, said the statewide contests are likely to be decided by a few percentage points, in part because there’s also a deadlocked U.S. Senate seat up for grabs.

“Voters tend to be partisan down the ballot,” Bitzer said. “Even if they don't know about the candidates or the particular office, they will tend to go with their party loyalty. We should see a fairly close election.”

Abortion motivates voters

The WRAL survey found abortion as an animating issue for voters in the race. Debate over access to the medical procedure intensified after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down nationwide abortion protections that had been in place since its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The nation’s high court instead left it up to states to set their own laws. In North Carolina, that meant the reinstatement of a law banning abortion in most cases after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

State Republican lawmakers are hoping to gain legislative supermajorities. If they do, they plan to impose further restrictions. Since 2017, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed anti-abortion measures put forward by the Republican-controlled legislature.

If Republicans are successful in getting veto-proof majorities this year, a conservative state Supreme Court could uphold measures state lawmakers pass. Dietz and Allen have signaled greater deference to the will of state lawmakers than Inman and Ervin.

“The big question is can Republicans capture supermajority status in both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly and at least capture one seat if not both on the state Supreme Court,” Bitzer said. “They can then have carte blanche to basically write abortion policy as they see fit, and if it gets challenged in state court, that means that the state's highest court will basically side with Republicans in the legislature. Democrats utilizing abortion as a motivating factor should also send the message of checks and balances.”

Abortion weighs on voters' NC Supreme decision process

The WRAL poll found abortion will be a major or deciding factor for most voters in the state Supreme Court race. Sixteen percent of respondents cited abortion as the determining factor in how they’ll vote, 36% said it was a major factor, 22% believed it was somewhat of a factor and 23% felt it was not a factor.

Democrats were nearly twice as likely as Republicans to consider abortion at least a major factor in their Supreme Court voting decision.

Order in the court

The WRAL survey also gauged voter attitudes on the perception of partisanship on the Supreme Court. In many recent high-profile cases, including last year’s redistricting process, the court issued several 4-3 decisions split along party lines.

The judicial body drew the ire of conservatives last year when it ordered legislative and congressional lines be redrawn by state lawmakers in a way that was more balanced politically. The latest congressional map is only to be used this year, paving the way for another contentious redistricting process in 2023. If Republicans gain control of the state Supreme Court, the GOP could see increased political representation in the U.S. House.

Regardless, North Carolina voters appear confident in the court’s ability to make fair decisions. Half of respondents said they trust the judicial body to come to fair decisions, while 19% expressed distrust. The remaining 31% weren’t sure.

NC voter attitudes on state Supreme Court fairness

Since 2018, all North Carolina judicial elections have been partisan affairs, meaning the candidates’ parties appear next to their names on ballots. The move increased a perception of bias on the bench, particularly as high-profile political cases have reached the state’s highest court.

Respondents to the WRAL poll signaled a desire for the judicial races to go back to being nonpartisan.

“North Carolina Democrats have always been committed to putting forth strong judicial candidates committed to providing fair and just rulings independent of their political affiliation and we will continue to support them in every way we can,” Richardson wrote. “When North Carolina Republicans legislated partisanship into our judicial elections in 2018, they put their thumbs on the scales of justice, and if the overturning of Roe v. Wade spoke to anything, it’s that partisan justice is not what the people of this state and country want or deserve.”

NC voters weigh in on partisanship in judicial elections

While 41% of North Carolina voters surveyed favored a return to nonpartisan Supreme Court races, 33% preferred the state continue to use party affiliations.

The question yielded strong differences, with 46% of Republicans, 32% of Democrats and 19% of independents favor continued party labels, Meanwhile, 29% of Republicans, 41% of Democrats and 55% of independents want to revert to nonpartisan elections.

Bitzer and Walker say party labels are likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

“I don't think we're going backwards on it,” Walker said. “If you want to call it partisanship or party identification, I think it’s here to stay.”

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