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If you can’t beat your opponent, disqualify them

RALEIGH —  A hot new trend is sweeping North Carolina campaigns this year: Trying to get your opponents disqualified and kicked off the ballot before Election Day.

I’m surprised this tactic hasn’t been used heavily before. Why go to the trouble to raise money and campaign on issues when you could just knock out the other candidate on a technicality and run unopposed?

These sort of complaints filed with elections boards aren’t new, but there have been at least a dozen or so this year (the state elections board doesn’t have an exact figure) — far more than past cycles. The majority are residency challenges — complaints that a candidate doesn’t actually live in the district where they’re running for office.

Normally, the state constitution requires candidates to live in their district for at least a year before Election Day. But a redistricting lawsuit has prompted last-minute changes in legislative district lines, so the courts dropped that requirement for this year.

The new districts sent politicians scrambling to move into districts where they have the strongest chance of victory. That included several incumbent legislators who looked at the demographics of their new district and felt a sudden urge to relocate.

Many of those candidates now face residency challenges. The complaints are difficult to prove without stalking someone to see which house they’re sleeping at. In one case, someone actually hired a private eye to follow a candidate.

That was in Mecklenburg County, where a Republican is challenging the candidacy of N.C. House candidate Brandon Lofton, a Democrat. The complaint alleges that while Lofton is buying a house in his district, he hadn’t yet moved when he changed his voter registration. The Mecklenburg elections board deadlocked along party lines after a lengthy hearing, but an appeal is likely.

The stakes are high, both for the political parties and for the voters of House District 104. If Lofton is disqualified, incumbent Republican Rep. Andy Dulin will be unopposed — giving the GOP an automatic win in a competitive district, while depriving voters of a choice.

Left-leaning groups are trying the same tactic, although none have admitted to hiring a private eye. Many of the residency challenges against Republicans stem from efforts by a nonprofit group called Real Facts NC.

  Real Facts sent mailings to the home addresses of GOP candidates, and any mail returned as “undeliverable” led to a residency challenge. One target was Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly and a powerful figure in the House, who says there’s no mail delivery at his home because he uses a post office box instead.

The Postal Service isn’t exactly a reliable way to assess residency, even though it’s how the state elections agency verifies registrations. Lots of people get their mail at post office boxes, but they don’t live inside the boxes. So far, none of the challenges have forced anyone off the ballot.

At least one eligibility complaint didn’t involve residency. Republican Senate candidate Nora Trotman faced a complaint that she wasn’t registered as a GOP voter ahead of filing. That’s a law designed to make sure no one sabotages a party’s primary by faking their political affiliation, but Trotman has GOP backing. Her party notes that she’s been a dues-paying member of a Young Republicans group.

Trotman’s candidacy was initially rejected by the Mecklenburg County elections board, but the state elections board overturned the decision because the county board didn’t have enough votes to act.

While it’s important that political candidates follow the law, many of the complaints may prove frivolous. The real goal may be to make voters doubt a candidate’s honesty, and the controversies are a distraction from the real issues voters want to hear about.

It’s also troubling that the complaints are backed by groups that operate in the shadows. As a 501c4 nonprofit, Real Facts doesn’t have to disclose who’s funding its mailers. It’s also unclear who paid for the private investigator to follow Lofton.

  Enough with the sideshows. Let’s get back to the education, healthcare and economic issues that actually matter in this year’s election.

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Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @Raleigh Reporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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