NC Democrats want special elections for party-switchers like Rep. Tricia Cotham
Updated at 4:05 p.m.
Democrats in the state Senate have filed legislation to penalize elected officials who switch parties in the middle of their term.
The bill directly stems from Rep. Tricia Cotham’s decision to leave the Democratic Party and become a Republican. Her move gave the GOP a veto-proof majority in the House, and Democrats in her Mecklenburg County district were surprised. Cotham had campaigned on abortion rights and support for the LGBTQ community.
The people in my precinct trusted me like I trusted her, and she betrayed that trust by switching parties just three months after being sworn in.Maryjane Conti, constituent of now-GOP Republican Rep. Tricia Cotham
Maryjane Conti lives in Cotham's district and says she recommended her as a candidate to friends and neighbors during last year's election.
"I said to them, ‘Well, I'll probably vote for Tricia Cotham. She has experience, she was a teacher so she’ll support public education, and uphold democratic values,'" she said. "I was wrong. The people in my precinct trusted me like I trusted her, and she betrayed that trust by switching parties just three months after being sworn in."
The Democrats’ bill would require a special election to determine whether a party-switching elected official can finish their term — if they have more than six months left in the term. The special election would need to be held within 90 days of the party switch.
"If a player on Ted Lasso’s AFC Richmond team suddenly switched jerseys and started scoring for the opposite team, the fans would demand that Coach Lasso replace that player, justifiably so," said Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County and a sponsor of the bill, referring to the popular Apple TV show about a soccer coach. "So the same should be true for voters whose elected representative switches teams and starts helping the other side."
The bill would also require a party-switching politician to refund campaign contributions from any donor who requests. Ann Newman, another former Cotham supporter who spoke at a news conference Tuesday, said she got the newly minted Republican to return her donation, but she thinks that should be the norm any time there's a party switch.
Cotham told a News & Observer reporter later Tuesday that she's "still the same person" that voters elected, and that the new Senate special election bill is an attempt by Democrats to "to use my story as the narrative that they need to raise money."
The bill is unlikely to get a hearing in the Republican-controlled legislature. Sen. Michael Garrett, a Democrat from Guilford County and a sponsor of the bill, says he'll still try to persuade the majority.
"This example, if you talk to people, is one of the most offensive instances of true voter fraud we have seen in this state in recent history," Garrett said. "So it is really our responsibility, and I think our obligation to address it."
Cotham's move wasn't the first party switch in the North Carolina legislature, but previous moves by Republicans and Democrats didn't prompt similar legislation. Other historic party-swappers include conservative state Rep. Michael Decker who moved from Republican to Democrat in 2003 creating a 60-60 balance in the House. Decker was later sentenced to four years in prison in a political corruption investigation. Jesse Helms swapped from Democrat to Republican in 1970, directly inspired by President Richard Nixon's own move.