Coming soon to a mailbox near you

There’s at least one piece of mail you can expect to receive in the next few days that you’d be well advised not to toss into the recycling bin until after Nov. 2. It’s the 2004 Judicial Voter Guide, designed to provide an unfiltered look at the candidates for the state’s highest judicial bodies: the N.C. Supreme Court (two seats) and the N.C. Court of Appeals (three seats).

The State Board of Elections will mail out 4 million copies of the guide on Oct. 10, providing a new level of information about these often-overlooked candidates.

“The statements are telling,” notes Bob Hall, director of research for Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan group that has worked hard to help bring this project to fruition. “They’re not written by reporters — these are the candidates themselves describing themselves briefly. And when you think about the office and the importance of judges … they do really impact lives. Whether it’s the water you drink, the schools you go to, workers’ comp issues, tax issues — they all wind up in court, and judges are the ones who decide whether laws are going to be enforced or thrown out or modified. They have a lot of power.”

So the guide, says Hall, “is really an excellent resource. It is cheap — less than a nickel apiece to produce — but it’s very valuable.”

The publication was mandated by the Judicial Reform Act of 2002, which removed these elections from the brouhaha of partisan camps. Madison County resident Tom Coulson, who was then president of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, says the act came about in response to mounting concern about campaign-finance reform in the state and in the legislature itself that year. Coulson’s group forged an alliance with other campaign-reform advocates, such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the N.C. Center for Voter Education, the NAACP, the AARP and Democracy North Carolina.

“We worked in concert, says Coulson, “and had been proposing a bill that would provide for public financing for governor, Council of State and legislature, and we built considerable support for that.”

Ultimately, such sweeping reform didn’t make it through the political process, but Coulson says there was considerable concern among state legislators about the increasing cost of judicial campaigning and the implications of having judges dependent on sizable individual or corporate contributions. That helped the Judicial Reform Act win approval, and built into it was a way to inform state voters about the candidates, who would no longer carry party endorsements to help boost their prospects.

The money for both the guide and the campaign financing was supposed to come from the N.C. Public Campaign Fund checkoff on state tax returns (a “cost-neutral” measure that diverts $3 of the money each participating taxpayer already owes the state into the campaign-finance fund), bolstered by a request to members of the N.C. Bar Association for voluntary contributions accompanying their annual dues.

“The first year that the bill was in effect, there were some glitches within state government in getting out the word on tax returns and to tax preparers about the checkoff, and for a while it looked like we weren’t going to have enough money” to print and mail the guide, Coulson recalls. “But we did have a good influx of money from late filers,” he continues, crediting Hall with raising the remaining funds through grants from Jim Goodman, president and CEO of television station WRAL in Raleigh, and the Winston-Salem-based Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. “In addition,” notes Coulson, “Hall found a way to save money on the formatting and printing” — the final step in making the publication a reality.

With unbiased information to help citizens size up the candidates for state judgeships and learn about the public campaign fund itself, the 2004 Judicial Voter Guide is a premier resource for this election season. It also contains useful information about election dates and voting in general.

A PDF version of the guide is available on the State Board of Elections Web site (www.sboe.state.nc.us).

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