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Will a school board candidate’s party show on your ballot? That depends where you live.

Earl Tye and JoAnn Sweeney.jpg
Liz Schlemmer
Volunteer Earl Tye answers voter JoAnn Sweeney’s questions about the Orange County school board race. “People have come up and said, ‘Who are the Republicans on the school board race?’ And I will tell them there are none,” said Tye. He's a Republican supporting a slate of candidates seeking to unseat incumbent school board members.

For most voters, school board races will be at the bottom of their ballots at Tuesday’s primary election. In many places, those races are getting more attention than usual. That has put a premium on just how those candidates appear on the ballot.

At an early voting site in Hillsborough on Wednesday, voters trickled in through a walkway lined with campaign signs and volunteers waiting to talk up the candidates they support.

“Do you need information on school board candidates?” asked Meaghun Darab, a volunteer supporting a Democratic incumbent.

Voters and volunteers said the school board is the hottest race this year in Orange County, as it is in many counties across the country.

“I had never voted in a school board election before, and because it's such a hot topic, I am out for the first time,” said Adam, a voter who requested not to share his last name.

In the past year, school boards have weighed in on the return to in-person schooling and COVID-19 precautions like masks. They’ve faced challenges to library books and how classes address race and gender — all issues that have become politically divided.

Dem sample ballot Orange County.jpg
Liz Schlemmer
At an early voting site in Hillsborough, volunteers with the Orange County Democratic Party offered copies of sample ballots that show school board candidates’ registered party affiliations as a guide. These party affiliations do not appear on voters’ actual ballots because Orange County has a nonpartisan school board race.

The school board race is nonpartisan in Orange County, meaning candidates’ party affiliations are not listed on the ballot. Adam considered whether it was harder to decide who to support in a county with a nonpartisan school board race.

“It's not really nonpartisan, right? There's a lot of politics going around the education system this year on the web. I've gone to the different candidates’ websites and read sort of their platform and gone from there,” Adam said.

Other voters came to the volunteers looking for help with last-minute research on school board candidates.

“People have come up and said, ‘Who are the Republicans on the school board race?’” said volunteer Earl Tye. “And I will share what I know to be the case for all seven of the active candidates, five being Democrats and two Unaffiliated.”

Tye is a Republican in a Democratic-majority county. He volunteered at a booth for the Friends of Orange County Schools. The bipartisan political action committee is supporting a slate of school board candidates hoping to unseat Democratic incumbents.

“I think one good thing about this being nonpartisan, it kind of forces people to put in a little more effort to learn about the candidates,” Tye said.

All the volunteers had one word of advice for voters: because Orange County has a nonpartisan school board race, Tuesday’s election outcome will be the final decision in the school board race.

But in some North Carolina counties, school board candidates’ parties are listed and Tuesday’s election will decide which candidates compete in November. Where you live determines how the school board race appears on your ballot.

So how did it get this way?

Gerry Cohen is widely regarded as an expert on North Carolina elections. He formerly served as special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly and currently serves on the Wake County Board of Elections.

He says the school board election rules can be confusing for voters.

“Johnston County has a different system than Wake that has a different system than Durham, and Chapel Hill isn't having a school board election this year at all. And so it's just hard to understand,” Cohen said. “If you're in a particular county with a system, you'll need to learn that system.”

One tip is to look up who's on your ballot at the North Carolina State Board of Elections website. You can use the same form to look up candidates’ registered party affiliations.

If the school board race is nonpartisan in your county, your ballot will show all the candidates -- but not their party. If the school board race is partisan, you'll only see the candidates that belong to the party you requested.

Partisan boards map 2.jpg
Jason DeBruyn
In North Carolina, 43 school districts have partisan school board races, based on "local" laws passed by the North Carolina General Assembly. The remaining 72 have nonpartisan races, by default under state statute or based on policies implemented when city and county school districts merged. Data from the North Carolina School Boards Association.

“There are actually six different school board election systems in North Carolina, most setup by local acts passed for a particular system. A couple were set up by the State Board of Education after school mergers. And there's a general law passed in 1967, which isn't particularly general,” Gerry Cohen explained.

Article 5 of that law says all school board elections should be nonpartisan. That's the default. But in the last decade, the Republican-led General Assembly has passed laws to make more than 25 counties' school board elections partisan. All of those counties lean Republican, and the policies passed in so-called “local bills” that affect a small area and cannot be vetoed by the governor.

Craig Horn is a former state representative from Union County. He's a Republican, and is one of the legislators who voted for those laws.

NC school elections blue.jpg
Laura Pellicer

“Yes, I did. I voted for them because I thought the voter deserves to have as much information as they can get. And as imperfect as the D and R signature is or identifier is, it's better than no identifier,” Horn said.

“By the same token, let me tell you, there's no question there is a partisan agenda in putting the D and R on the ballot,” Horn said. “I'm not going to suggest anything to the contrary.”

“In a district where one party or the other dominates, you want the D and R on there because you people tend to vote, especially down ballot, on a partisan basis,” Horn said. “If I'm a Democrat, I'm gonna vote for Democrats. Where's the Democrats? So I'm looking on the ballot, where are the Democrats?”

“North Carolina has a long history of the General Assembly, deciding on local election systems,” said Gerry Cohen. “Depending on your perspective, it's either interference or good government.”

Craig Horn said although he voted for these local bills, he tends to think it's interference. He sees both the pros and cons.

“Making a race partisan is not the best idea. But is it a better idea than having a nonpartisan and you have no clue? I offer that question up to the voter: What do you want?” Horn posed.

Election laws, however, are not decided by the voter, but rather the representatives they elect.

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