Gay Ferguson, right, speaks with election official Carter Blaisdell prior to voting at the First Baptist Church of Black Mountain polling place on March 3, 2020, in Buncombe County. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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North Carolina’s westernmost U.S. congressional district will see the state’s only runoff from the Super Tuesday primary.

A second Republican primary in the race for the 11th Congressional District nomination is scheduled for May 12.

On March 5, Madison Cawthorn requested a second primary against first-place finisher Lynda Bennett. Cawthorn earned 20% of the vote to Bennett’s 23% in a race that had 12 candidates.

By North Carolina rules, the second-place finisher in a primary can request a runoff election if no candidate earns more than 30% of the vote.

Whoever wins the runoff election will face Moe Davis, who won the Democratic nomination with 47% of the vote, in the November general elections. They are competing in the newly drawn congressional districts approved by the state’s courts last year for use in 2020.

The candidates are vying to replace U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Sapphire, the current 11th District representative, who announced his retirement from the House just 30 hours before the candidate filing deadline in December.

Without Meadows as an incumbent and the inclusion of liberal Asheville in the redrawn maps, it is possible that the previously Republican-leaning district will be competitive come November.

Only one other race qualified for a runoff – the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. However, the second-place finisher, Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, declined to request it. Her decision effectively hands the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor to N.C. Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley, D-Wake.

Holley and the Republican nominee, Mark Robinson, are both African American, guaranteeing that North Carolina will have its first black lieutenant governor after November’s election.

11th District runoff

That Republicans are even running a primary election for the 11th District came as a surprise to many – including many Republicans who may have harbored aspirations for a U.S. House seat.

Fellow Republicans, such as state Sen. Jim Davis, the third-place finisher in the primary, have decried Meadows’ timing in announcing his retirement.

Davis, who earned 19% of the vote in the Republican primary, said he will not endorse either of the remaining candidates.

“I consider it was wrong for Rep. Meadows to endorse a candidate, especially after he stated to me and other candidates that he would not endorse,” Davis wrote in an email.

Meadows endorsed Bennett, who is a friend of his wife.

For Davis, the endorsement was an insult added to the injury of Meadows’ timing in announcing his unexpected retirement.

Neither Meadows nor Bennett replied to requests for comment.

In response to questions about how the runoff affects his campaign, Cawthorn noted that the historically low voter turnout in runoffs will require his campaign to adopt a “more targeted strategy” and that he would have preferred to use the money in the general election.

Who can vote in the Republican runoff?

The second primary is limited to voters in the 11th Congressional District, which is composed of North Carolina’s 16 westernmost counties and half of Rutherford County.

Any 11th District Republican who was registered to vote on March 3 will be eligible to vote in the runoff on May 12.

Unaffiliated voters registered to vote on March 3 and who requested a Republican ballot can vote again in the runoff. Unaffiliated voters who did not vote on Super Tuesday can also vote in the runoff.

But unaffiliated voters who requested a ballot other than the Republican ballot in the first primary are not eligible to vote in the second primary. Voters who are registered with other parties, such as the Democrats or Libertarians, cannot participate in the second primary.

State law also prohibits voter registration between the first and second primary, unless a person’s eligibility changes. For example, citizens who turn 18 during that period can register. A person who becomes a citizen during that time can register. Or a person who is released from court supervision, such as probation or parole, during the 10 weeks between elections can register to vote.

Voters moving within the same county can still update their registrations. But requests to change political parties or for new registrations will be held until after the runoff.

Because of these restrictions, there is no same-day voter registration during early voting for the runoffs.

Voters who requested an absentee ballot in the first primary will automatically be issued an absentee ballot for the second primary. For every other eligible voter, the deadline to request an absentee ballot is May 5.

Early voting for the runoff will begin April 23 and end May 9. County early voting plans will need to be submitted to the State Board of Elections by March 26. The state board issued a memo to counties laying out the registration and voting rules for the second primary.

The potential for a special election

On March 6, President Donald Trump confirmed rumors that Rep. Meadows was leaving his seat in the House to become the president’s new chief of staff, replacing the current acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

Meadows has not announced when he will resign from the House. Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires that when a vacancy occurs in the House, the governor of the representative’s home state will call a new election.

This does not necessarily mean that Meadows’ seat will be filled temporarily before the next legislature is seated in January 2021. If Meadows’ departure is too close to the end of his term, the governor may decide not to call an election to temporarily fill his seat because of the impracticability and cost of running an election, according to UNC School of Government professor Robert Joyce.

The special election to fill Meadows’ seat for the rest of this current congressional term – which ends in January – is separate from the general election that will be held this November to fill the seat for the next congressional term, which will run from 2021-23.

The governor’s office told Carolina Public Press, “Our office is considering the options and evaluating potential scenarios.”

If a special election is called, the governor decides when it will be held. Due to the timing of Meadows’ retirement announcement, the nominees to fill the temporary seat are decided by the political party executive committees representing the 11th District.


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Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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