Buckle up, Wake County voters. It’s going to be an epic election year from now to November 2016. One like we’ve never seen beforeand yes, never is a long time, but I’m saying it anyway.

For starters, big ol’ Wake County, with its swing-vote tendencies and 1 million-plus population, could literally decide the presidential election. It may also determine whether Gov. Pat McCrory is re-elected oras is fervently hopedisn’t.

In Wake County itself, candidates for the school board and the county commission will be on the same ballot, the first time that’s happened. We may also see a school-bond referendum and a referendum on a sales-tax increase for mass transit, which from a progressive standpoint would be either a bridge too far or a double-decker bus ride to fabulousness. I’ll call it the latter.

The health of our public schools and universities is the issue statewide. In Wake, it’s our schools, transportation and using growth to boost our living standards and create good jobs. We’re overdue for that transit referendum. But we need new schools, too, and the backlog is growing.

Let’s make the case for schools and growth, OK? But no pressure. We still have three weeks to design the bumper sticker before the filing period begins for the March 15 primaries.


As you read on, keep in mind that because of the General Assembly, almost everything you used to know about the elections laws in Wake County is obsolete. The Republicans gave them a total rewriteand not with fairness in mind, either.

Let’s begin with the presidential election: Electoral-college math tells us that a Republican can’t win the White House without North Carolina. We’re one of the biggest swing states, and Wake is our biggest swing county. For example, Obama won Wake by 64,000 votes in 2008 and the state by just 14,000. Given Wake’s population boom since, a comparable result next year would be a 76,000-vote margin. On the other hand, McCrory, a Republican, carried Wake in 2012 by 762 votes. Big swing.

The same math applies to the Senate race. Knock out Richard Burr, and Democrats take a giant step toward regaining control of the Senate. Winning Wake is their key.

The same goes for other statewide races. To oust McCrory, the Democratic candidateAttorney General Roy Cooper or Durham lawyer Ken Spauldingwill need that 76,000-vote margin, or something close to it. So, too, will the Democratic nominees for lieutenant governor, attorney general and other Council of State offices.

In the General Assembly, Republicans control the Senate 34-16 and the House 74-45, with one independent member. (Yes, the districts are that gerrymandered.) Statewide, Democrats are focused on picking up five or more House seats, enough to sustain a gubernatorial veto should Cooper or Spaulding win. (To override, Republicans need three-fifths majorities in both chambers.) Four of the juiciest Republican targets are in Wake, starting with Rep. Gary Pendleton, who won in District 49 two years ago by just 1,298 votes. Democrat Cynthia Ball, a professional mediator and former N.C. State administrator, will be a formidable challenger. Second, third and fourth on the Democrats’ target list: Rep. Nelson Dollar; the seat being vacated by Paul Stam; and Marilyn Avila.

In Wake, the last two school board and county commission elections put Democrats in near-total control. (The school board is nominally nonpartisan.) So Republican legislators changed the rules, creating gerrymandered districts that give them a chance to win majorities on both boards even if the Democrats get more votes. They also pushed school elections from odd- to even-numbered years. I won’t dwell on the details, because the whole scheme is under a court challenge that starts next month. Suffice it to say that if the Republican rules prevail, the county commission is certain to remain under Democratic control only until the 2018 elections. And the school board could flip in 2016.

Which is why the school-bond question is critical. Due to another change by the Legislature, Wake County is henceforth prohibited from asking voters to approve school-bond issues in odd-numbered years. (The same applies to the transit referendum.) Thus, if county commissioners don’t ask for a school bond in 2016, they’ll have to wait until 2018. By then, the school board could be in Republican hands, or Democratic commissioners, fearing for their re-election chances in a nonpresidential election year, might blink again. The last school bond, in 2013, was for $810 million, less than half of what Wake needed at the time. The school system has grown by 3,000 students a year since. It’s not a pretty picture.

Behind the scenes, some Democratic commissioners are hesitant to put a school bond on the 2016 ballot for fear of undermining the transit tax. That’s not an unfounded concern. But if those gerrymandered election districts survive and the Republicans get back in, then we can kiss both goodbye for the foreseeable future.

And let’s not forget, 2016 is a presidential election year, when turnout is at its highest and progressives have the best chance to succeed. As a friend put it, 2016 is the year to “go big or go home.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Go big or go home”