U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-12th District

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U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-12th District

N.C., U.S. legislative openings a topic for lawmakers

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — Lawmakers come and go from North Carolina’s General Assembly and congressional delegation. Now some elected leaders wonder whether it’s 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 state’s 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. He planned to resign Monday after more than 20 years in Congress and become chief of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Watt’s office said.

The 170-member General Assembly also currently 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 year’s sweeping elections overhaul law. Oversight committee leaders don’t 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 that’s what the intent (is) of this whole effort,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, a committee co-chairman. But the panel discussions may prove “there’s no better way,” he said.

The upcoming vacancy debate won’t interfere with the election schedule to fill Watt’s 12th Congressional District vacancy. Details of a special election are expected to be announced by Gov. Pat McCrory soon after Watt’s formal resignation. The U.S. Constitution requires states to convene elections to fill vacant U.S. House seats.

President Barack Obama nominated Watt to the housing agency position in May but he didn’t get confirmed by the Senate until December, after fellow Democrats weakened filibuster rules that had allowed Republicans to block his approval in October.

The 2014 schedule for legislative and congressional seats automatically up for re-election this fall already is largely set, with a 2½-week candidate filing period in February, the May 6 primary, a possible midsummer runoff and Nov. 4 general election.

This schedule and the timing of Watt’s departure means several Democratic candidates that want to succeed him must run in two 12th District elections simultaneously. One will be for the remainder of Watt’s term and the other for the next two-year term beginning in January 2015.

The two elections could mean May primary voters could see the same candidates twice on the same ballot.

“I’m more concerned about the potential for the public to be confused with multiple elections,” said George Battle III, one of at least seven people planning to run for Watt’s seat.

Had Watt’s resignation occurred in the middle of or after the 2014 candidate filing period, political parties would have picked their own nominees to serve out the rest of his term. Still, it’s hard to consolidate much further any special election schedule. Federal law requires a minimum of 45 days before each election to give military members and other citizens living overseas and registered in the congressional district time to return ballots.

The 2013 election overhaul law didn’t 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 governor’s 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 party’s 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 seeking Watt’s seat. He’s among five General Assembly members who have filed paperwork to run, and they would have to vacate their legislative post to complete Watt’s term. Graham doesn’t see a need to change the current process for legislative seats, which he said avoids expensive elections.

It’s not “a long drawn-out process,” he said. “It’s less confusing.”