Campaigners for both the Vance Patterson and Mark Meadows campaigns for the Republican Congressional District 11's runoff await and greet voters outside the Flat Rock Village Center in Henderson County. Katie Bailey/Carolina Public Press

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Campaign season for 2016 will get underway in earnest next week in North Carolina as the filing window opens for candidates.

At noon on Tuesday, Dec. 1, those wanting to throw their hats in the ring for offices ranging from U.S. Senator to county commissioner can file. The window stays open through noon on Dec. 21. Anyone who gets cold feet can withdraw by 5 p.m. on Dec. 16.

If that seems early, it is. Typically the filing season for North Carolina elections falls in February, with primary election in May. But the process for 2016 is frontloaded in order for the state to participate meaningfully in the process of choosing the next president.

The purpose of moving the primary earlier isn’t intended to shake up local races, but local candidates and county-level elections staff are having to adjust.

Presidential politics

When North Carolina doesn’t conduct a presidential primary until May, the choice for president on both the Democratic and Republican tickets can be a foregone conclusion and the state becomes a nonfactor.

That has prevented candidates from spending much time courting North Carolina voters and weighing in on issues important in this state during the primaries, even though population growth has made the state the ninth-biggest.

As a state that’s gone back and forth in recent elections, it also represents a likely battleground in the November contest. North Carolina politicians of all stripes feel justified in seeking a bigger role in the spotlight for the state during the primary season.

Legislators decided to move the 2016 primary to March 15, which isn’t among the earliest in the country, but comes well ahead of many other states.

By that date, 25 states and Puerto Rico will already have conducted primaries or caucuses. But this timing places the state close to the middle of the primary season and comes on what could be a big day for the 2016 races.

The same day North Carolinians go to the polls, voters in Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri also make their picks, representing the third, fifth, seventh, and 18th biggest states respectively.

Among the largest states, only Texas and Georgia, which vote on “Super Tuesday,” two weeks earlier, will have voted by this time.

Population trends have pushed more Americans into the biggest states, with the majority now living in the 10 biggest, including North Carolina. In the general election, the top 12 states control the majority of the electoral votes. Primary delegates are more complicated and each party assigns them differently.

Filing in December

Shifting North Carolina’s presidential primary schedule also means moving up all of the statewide and local elections, except for a few races like school boards and soil and water boards that don’t conduct primaries.

In theory the state could conduct separate primaries at a different time for state and local races, but doing so would be expensive and could drive down voter participation.

So legislators decided to move everything to March 15. That in turn moves the filing period for 2016 to the final month of 2015, just a few weeks after end of the 2015 municipal election season.

One of the implications of the accelerated election cycle will be for anyone who needed to change parties before filing for office. It’s notoriously difficult to win elected office in North Carolina for a candidate not affiliated with one of the two major parties, despite a phenomenal increase in unaffiliated voters in recent years.

Candidates also sometimes switch parties in order to participate in a different primary or because of genuine differences with the positions the local, state or national party is taking. Or it could be a strategic decision, based on who’s is running on the opposite side of the ballot.

But whatever the reason, this time the candidate had to take care of any affiliation changes before Oct. 7. Candidates who didn’t do that will, as the saying goes “have to dance with them what brung them.”

Offices up for election in 2015 will vary somewhat from county to county.

At the federal level, the presidency is the big race. But the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Richard Burr will be on the ballot as well. Every U.S. House seat in North Carolina will also be up, though there may not be primaries or contested races for every seat, depending on who files to run.

The state will select a governor, lieutenant governor and various council of state offices. Every seat in the state House and state Senate will also be on the ballot.

Many judgeships throughout the state will be on the ballot in 2015, as will many district attorneys.

Candidates for all the offices listed above should file with the state board of elections after having their county boards verify their residency and eligibility.

At the county level, many sheriffs, clerks of court, registers of deeds and county commissioners will be selected. Candidates for local office should file with their county boards of election.

Each of those will have potential primaries and need to adhere to the December filing period. Nonpartisan school boards and soil and water boards will have filing period in the summer, since there is no primary for these seats.

All contests will appear on the 2016 ballot in November.

Voting strategy

Having a presidential contest that could matter nationally may also affect a key decision for unaffiliated voters – which primary to vote in.

When the presidential contest was an afterthought, voters might be likely to pick the Democratic or Republican ballot depending on which one had the most significant state or local contests in a given year.

But in 2015 that choice will mean giving up the opportunity to vote in the other party’s presidential primary, which could result in a tough decision for many North Carolina voters.

Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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