Process will involve some old-style arm-twisting

By on January 18, 2011

 (Library of Congress)

Some folks might be unhappy about how the vacancy for resigning state Senator Marc Basnight will be filled, but the process will go on nonetheless Friday night in Columbia.

Acknowledging the inevitable, it seems important that we provide a rundown on how the process will work.

The Senate District Executive Committee is so seldom convened for this purpose that few local party insiders could readily describe its mechanics.

One who can is Chris Hardee, chairman of the Democratic 3rd Congressional District Committee. Party rules designate him as the non-voting chair of the 1st District Senate Executive Committee, which will be recommending Basnight’s successor.

Hardee has done this before — when state Rep. Bill Culpepper resigned and Tim Spear was chosen to fill the vacancy.

If what follows seems to be old-school politics from the time when nominees were chosen at conventions rather than primaries, you are not far off the mark. The process, Hardee explained, is governed by state law as well as party rules. Both sets of rules were codified in the 50s and 60s. In fact, the Democratic Party rules were written by a then young Democrat in the 1960s. His name was Jim Hunt.

CountyPopulationTotal votes
Beaufort44,958150
Camden6,88523
Currituck18,19061
Dare29,967100
Hyde5,82619
Pasquotank34,897116
Tyrrell4,189Not organized
Washington13,72346

Each county in the senate district sends two delegates to the committee meeting. These delegates are assigned a vote total based on a formula of one vote for each 300 residents of the county, based on the last available decennial census (in this case, 2000’s).

Hyde, with 5,826 residents gets 19 votes to split between their two delegates, Beaufort, with 44,958 is allowed 150 votes. Tyrrell County is not organized for the committee and will not be sending a delegation. Thus, 515 votes will be cast from the seven counties participating.

The two delegates can cast their votes for any number of candidates. If they agree, they can cast their votes in unison. If they disagree, the rules call for the delegates to evenly split their county’s votes and each individual can then cast their votes as they see fit. In either situation, the votes can be divided among more than one candidate. If a delegate has 50 votes (or 100 between them if they agree on how the votes will be case) they could, for example, cast 25 for candidate A, 20 for B, and 5 for C.

For a name to be included in the voting, one of the 14 delegates must submit a nomination. A delegate can nominate anyone from any county in the district. A delegate can also nominate more than one person. No seconds to the nomination are required.

The winning candidate must attain a simple majority (50 percent plus one vote) to secure the nomination. With 515 votes up for grabs, 259 votes are needed.

One scenario not defined by the state party is how the committee will handle the issue of multiple candidates if more than two are nominated. The committee will adopt those rules before the balloting.

In the past, a common practice has been to drop the candidate with the lowest amount of votes after each one or two ballot rounds, thus narrowing the field as the night progresses.

However, the committee could decide to leave all nominated candidates in play through the entire process, forcing the delegates to come up with a numerical majority for one candidate from the entire nominated field. In theory, the committee could also decide on proportional voting or some other method.

After the committee chooses, the governor makes the appointment, which is a formality.

Basnight announced earlier this month that he was resigning for health reasons after winning a 14 term. Until the GOP takeover in November, he had been the longest-serving Senate president pro-tem in state history.

Several candidates have expressed an interest in the seat, with some formally declaring their intent. Other names have been floated, but no public confirmation has surfaced. Throwing one’s hat into the ring does not ensure being nominated at the convention, so the first goal of any office seeker will be to secure a promise from one of the 14 delegates to place the candidate’s name in nomination.

In Dare County, with three formally declared candidates (Virginia Tillett, Stan White and Paul Tine) and one other interested party (Warren Judge), Dare’s two delegates must decide if they will nominate one or more of the four individuals. A candidate could also go outside the county and convince a non-local delegate to make the nomination.

The next hurdle for a candidate will be even more difficult. The Washington Daily News reported over the weekend that former state Rep. Arthur Williams appears to have the support of both Beaufort delegates and their 150 votes. Logistically, Dare’s aspirants as well as Pasquotank County’s Matt Wood must find a way to amass an equal number of votes to mount a credible challenge in the early balloting.

While voters will not participate in this process, one can imagine a lot of cell phones are ringing as the other hopefuls attempt to stanch William’s apparent momentum.

For students of politics, Friday night promises all of the drama associated with conventions in the era before primaries.

Photo: Cartoon by Charles Dana Gibson from Life ca. 1913.

Related stories:
Basnight will leave state Senate on Jan. 25 »
Prospects for Basnight’s seat begin to emerge »
Power brokers earned their clout in a different era »
System shuts voters out from a rare moment »
White in, Spear out in scramble for Basnight’s seat »

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