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It’s not easy being disconnected. How an NC candidate got on the ballot

For the first time in modern North Carolina history, an unaffiliated candidate has made her way to the polls to run for Congress.

That’s according to an expert who keeps a close eye on state politics and marvels at Shelane Etchison’s performance. Chris Cooper says the system is set up to allow Republican and Democratic candidates to succeed.

“It’s a huge achievement to even get on the ballot if you’re an unaffiliated candidate,” said Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University, “and so it’s no coincidence that she’s the first. If it had been easy, we would have had this conversation sooner.”

Etchison collected the required 7,460 signatures needed to appear on the ballot in North Carolina. She will now face Republican incumbent Richard Hudson and Democrat Nigel Bristow to represent North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

The 9th District runs through the center of the state and includes Alamance, Hoke, Moore, Randolph and parts of Chatham, Cumberland and Guilford counties. State lawmakers felt they strongly favored a Republican victory.

NC veteran takes on powerful Republicans. She made history just by appearing on the ballot.

Cooper said that between 2010 and 2020, less than 3% of candidates were unaffiliated. Those candidates won 33 times, but nine of the candidates were unopposed.

Collect votes

Thomas Mills, Etchison’s campaign adviser, said he learned a lot by having her verified as an unaffiliated candidate. One of his most important tips is to collect twice as many signatures as necessary.

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Mills said because of the large size of the district, they have set up two operations: one in Alamance County and one around Moore County.

The campaign would go to densely populated areas and ask for people’s signatures. Once they collected enough signatures, they would submit them in batches to the state Board of Elections, which would then send them to county boards for verification.

They quickly realized that when they went to large populated areas, people often came from other parts of the state to sign, but those signatures wouldn’t count. Or they would take people from the same province, but outside the district, and they would be kicked out. Some people thought they were in the neighborhood, but they were in a different neighborhood. Others inadvertently used their nickname or misstated their address, which could cause problems.

That led them to reassess where they would go to find voters and collect signatures.

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Mills said the campaign started collecting signatures in mid-January and had until March 5 to turn them in.

In total, Mills said the campaign collected about 12,500 signatures but had to wait to hear if they were verified.

And that process took time.

The waiting game

In total, about 8,000 signatures Etchison’s campaign collected were verified, but Mills said the verification process was poorly defined and put the campaign at a disadvantage.

Mills is no stranger to running a campaign. He worked as a political consultant for 25 years, mainly on Democratic campaigns. He most notably worked on the direct mail team for John Kerry’s presidential campaign and for the Democratic National Committee. He also ran against Hudson in 2016.

Mills said Etchison’s signatures were due March 5, the date of the North Carolina primary.

Mills said the campaign assumed they would be notified within 15 days of the survey whether the signatures had been verified. He said he wrongly assumed they would know within 15 days whether Etchison would be on the ballot, but there was a delay.

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Mills said that while the two parties had chosen their nominees and both could begin campaigning, Etchison’s campaign was stuck in a holding pattern.

Cooper also discussed this.

“While Richard Hudson is raising money, while Richard Hudson is getting his name out, she had to spend her resources solely on the vote in the first place,” Cooper said. “She had to collect the signatures, and it’s not just any signature.”

It would be four weeks before Etchison was told she was on the ballot, but not until the second week of May before it was official.

“It put us at a disadvantage,” Mills said, “because we kept getting pushback when we talked to the media, when we talked to donors, because we weren’t officially on the ballot.”

“There really needs to be a cleaner process to get this done,” Mills said.

NC Reality Check is an N&O series that holds those in power accountable and shines a light on public issues impacting the Triangle or North Carolina. Do you have a suggestion for a future story? E-mail realitycheck@newsobserver.com

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