RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) — Democrats in the North Carolina Senate who are facing a bill to alter the landscape of the 2024 elections took to the microphone on Tuesday to announce a measure that would address a more immediate issue.

Senate Bill 748 would require candidates who do a party switcheroo early in their terms to be removed from office and refund their donors.

State Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Greensboro) led a press conference to introduce the public to SB 748, which is designed to remedy situations such as the one that emerged when Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County announced that she was leaving the Democratic party and joining Republicans.

Cotham said in April that the “modern-day Democratic party has become unrecognizable to me and others across the state” and that she had switched parties to escape the pressure she said she faced to vote with the Democratic caucus, declaring, “I will not be controlled by anyone.”

But Cotham, who represents House District 112, had been re-elected in November with 59.1% of the vote against Republican Tony Long, a landslide by modern proportions. She had been elected unopposed to a third term in 2012 and then left the House to run for Congress in 2016, finishing third in the Democratic primary won by incumbent 12th District Rep. Alma Adams (D-Charlotte).

Democratic Sens. Michael Garrett (left) and Natasha R. Marcus during the vote to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s abortion law veto. AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Her switch in April came amid controversy because of her absence from a vote that helped to deny a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper, and her switch gave the GOP a supermajority in the House (an edge it had already enjoyed in the Senate) and a clear path to refusing any blocks put up by Cooper.

She then voted with Republicans in their narrow passage of Senate Bill 20, a more restrictive abortion law, which required the General Assembly to override Cooper’s veto again. Previously a staunch opponent of abortion restrictions, Cotham said, “I believe this bill strikes a reasonable balance on the abortion issue and represents a middle ground that anyone not holding one of the two extremist positions can support.”

Maryjane Conti, a voter in House District 120, said in 2022, when she was evaluating candidates in the House race, she saw a tweet by a candidate that said, “We need leaders who will ‘defend the right to choose.’” Conti said at Tuesday’s press conference that she has “similar values.”

On May 3 [2022], two weeks before the primary, “my candidate tweeted those words. I said I would vote for Cotham. I was wrong,” Conti said.

Rep. Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) (NCGA)

Because of complaints like that and by those who had contributed money in support of Cotham, Garrett and Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) are pushing the bill they call Voter Fraud Prevention Act.

Their bill – which Marcus touted for its one-page length – would require that when a member of the General Assembly switches parties with more than 6 months left on his or her term that the seat is considered to have been vacated, triggering a special election within 90 days. That official also would have to refund campaign contributions to any donor who requests them.

“This is something we all should want to end, members of both parties,” Garrett said. 

Because she also represents Mecklenburg County (Senate District 41), Marcus said she had heard a lot of complaints about Cotham’s switch.

“Voters who elected her five months earlier and donors who had contributed to her were, in a word, angry,” Marcus said Tuesday without mentioning Cotham’s name. “A candidate who had professed to support one set of values changed to support the other.”

She said some who contacted her questioned the legality. Some had asked for their money back.

“This is not the only time it has happened,” she said. “Switches have happened before, and the parties have been reversed. 

“Voters rely on a candidate’s party affiliation to decide [how to vote]. Often – sometimes too often – that’s all voters know.”

She said it’s time “we did something to give voters tools … and donors a refund. …. Senate Bill 748 is only one page long. That’s all it takes to address the outrage in Mecklenburg County.”

She then invoked a comparison to someone who switches teams on the TV show “Ted Lasso” and a refund when you order sweet tea at the drive-thru but get unsweetened.  

“If a representative switches teams and starts helping the other side, his or her donors should get their money back,” she said. “Many donors contribute much more than the price of sweet tea.”