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N.C. Supreme Court Justice-elect Michael Morgan

The election last week of Michael Morgan to a key seat on the N.C. Supreme Court might have been somewhat accidental.

What happens next could follow a careful design.

Let’s go back to last Dec. 21 at the State Board of Elections office in Raleigh. Twenty-six small, square cards, each showing a different letter of the alphabet, were folded in half and dropped into a large jar. A little girl named Sophie turned her head away, reached into the jar and pulled out a card. It revealed the letter H.

The remaining 25 cards were dumped out and replaced with six different folded cards. Three said “Traditional Alphabetical A-Z.” Three said “Reverse Alphabetical Z-A.” Again Sophie looked away and grabbed one. It said “Traditional Alphabetical A-Z.”

That was very good news for Morgan. It meant that his name would appear on the general election ballot ahead of Robert Edmunds’ because the order would proceed alphabetically beginning with H. First after H was M for Morgan, before E for Edmunds.

This process was set by the State Board of Elections as authorized by law. The drawing was perfectly fair and honest. The public was allowed to attend, and a video was made. I watched it online Monday.

The outcome of the election was fair and honest, too. When results were tallied — pending the addition of provisional and mail-in absentee ballots — Morgan had 54.45 percent to 45.55 percent for Edmunds.

Yet this outcome was perhaps the biggest surprise of a stunning election night.

Edmunds, from Greensboro, was a two-term incumbent who was heavily supported by the state’s Republican establishment as well as many former appellate judges of both parties. On a night when most Republicans scored victories and swept all five Court of Appeals races at stake, Edmunds’ decisive loss was perplexing.

And costly. The Supreme Court will shift from a 4-3 Republican majority to 4-3 Democratic. This could pose a significant obstacle to Republican legislation.

Yet the Supreme Court is nonpartisan. Unlike the Court of Appeals candidates, Edmunds and Morgan weren’t identified by party.

Close observers knew that Edmunds is a Republican and Morgan, a Superior Court judge from Wake County, is a Democrat. But most voters probably did not.

A number of studies conducted across the country find that when voters lack information about candidates, some simply pick the first name listed.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, finds “first-listing bias” most pronounced lower on the ballot and in nonpartisan races where voters are least knowledgeable about the candidates. He says the effect can be as much as 5 percent. Five percent more votes for Edmunds and 5 percent fewer for Morgan would have flipped this race.

We can’t know for sure, but it is likely there was a high level of voter confusion in the Morgan-Edmunds race. Why? Because close to a half-million fewer people voted for Supreme Court than in each of the Court of Appeals contests. We can surmise that those voters looked at the unfamiliar names, saw no political affiliation, shrugged and moved on.

Some others may have given in to first-listing bias. And perhaps a few more, seeing Republican candidates listed first in every partisan race on the ballot, assumed that the Republican was the first candidate listed for Supreme Court, too, and voted accordingly.

The statewide voting patterns for the Supreme Court race and the partisan contests were very different. In the partisan races, Democrats carried the state’s large, urban counties as well as some small rural counties with African American majorities. So did Morgan. But he won many Republican counties or came close. For example, he received nearly 50 percent in Davidson County, where Democratic candidates for the Court of Appeals were held to less than 30 percent.

This means that North Carolina should follow some other states that rotate ballot order. It would have been easy for half the state’s ballots to list Morgan first and for the other half to list Edmunds first. That would eliminate the impact of first-listing bias.

The Republican legislature decided last year to stick party labels on Court of Appeals races but not for the Supreme Court. Republicans bet that their brand would be popular this year, and they were generally right. They surely must regret not doing the same for the Edmunds race.

Now they might try to make amends. Rumors are flying that, during a special session to deal with Hurricane Matthew needs next month, they’ll add two seats to the Supreme Court. Gov. Pat McCrory — just before leaving office if he’s declared the loser in the governor’s race — will appoint two Republicans to create a 5-4 GOP majority.

The idea would be to correct the voters’ “mistake.”

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Contact Doug Clark at doug.clark@greensboro.com or (336) 373-7039.

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