RALEIGH — Lawmakers come and go from North Carolinas General Assembly and congressional delegation. Now, some elected leaders wonder whether its time to change how to replace those who resign midterm or die in office.
The legislature directed an elections oversight committee to examine the rules for filling vacancies among the states U.S. House seats and to the state House and Senate, and report back by early next year.
Vacancies are getting attention as candidates and voters in portions of six Piedmont counties from Greensboro to Charlotte learn details about a special election to choose a successor to Democratic U.S. Rep. Mel Watt.
The 170-member General Assembly also has two vacant seats that will be filled soon. State law gives the power to local leaders of the political party of the departing legislator to nominate a successor, and the governor is required to appoint them.
The studies are among several tucked inside last years sweeping elections overhaul law. Oversight committee leaders dont seem rushed to change the processes this will be the first special congressional election in 10 years but want to explore whether vacancies can be filled using better methods.
If you want the people to be well represented, ultimately you would have the people make the decisions, and thats what the intent (is) of this whole effort, said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, a committee co-chairman. But the panel discussions may prove theres no better way, he said.
The upcoming vacancy debate wont interfere with the election schedule to fill Watts 12th Congressional District vacancy.
The 2013 election overhaul law didnt direct legislators to study how U.S. Senate vacancies are filled. The U.S. Constitution requires an election, but it allows a governor to appoint a temporary replacement until the election. The new law, however, made clear the governors temporary replacement usually must be a member of the same political party as the person being replaced.
As for General Assembly vacancies, the North Carolina Constitution required special elections until the early 1950s. Now members of a county partys executive committee or a party committee that covers a House or Senate district vote to approve a nominee to serve out the remainder of a two-year term.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, another co-chairman of the oversight committee, said in an email some legislators believe the state should revert to special elections to fill General Assembly vacancies so more citizens can participate instead of the current system.
The number of local party leaders or votes each leader gets to cast to decide a successor varies. Davidson County Republican leaders voted 3-2 in July and picked Roger Younts to succeed longtime state Rep. Jerry Dockham. Younts was a county executive committee member who voted for himself.
States are largely split among those holding special elections to fill vacated seats in their legislatures and those that have some appointment process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
State Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, is one of three current legislators running for Watts seat. Graham doesnt see a need to change the current process for legislative seats, which he said avoids expensive elections.
Its not a long drawn-out process, he said. Its less confusing.