How six amendments became the most polarizing issue on the ballot
For all the candidates facing the voters on Nov. 6, there’s one section of the ballot that encapsulates the bitter partisanship and bruising power politics that often define state government in North Carolina these days. It contains the six proposed amendments to the state Constitution.
Not all those amendments are equally controversial. The one enshrining the right to hunt and fish doesn’t inflame passions like the one requiring a photo ID to vote. And five former N.C. governors did not unite to oppose the amendment to strengthen protections for crime victims as they did with the two that would transfer power from the governor to the legislature. (To see how the amendments will appear to the voter, click here to view the 2-page sample ballot, amendments are on the second page).
Taken as a whole, the package of amendments — crafted by the GOP-dominated legislature — has created a partisan chasm. On its website, the State Republican Party says “we strongly encourage you to vote yes on all the amendments,” while the N.C. Democratic Party voices its desire to “stop the NC GOP’s Constitutional amendments.” That is echoed at the local party level, with the Dare GOP supporting all six and Dare Democrats joining the effort to “nix all six.”
On Oct. 10, the Dare County League of Women Voters (LWV) held a forum on the subject, and outlined its decision to oppose four amendments and take no position on two others — those two being the hunting and fishing and victim rights questions.
At that session, presenter Craig Merrill, describing the LWV’s wariness of the amendments, asserted that the Constitution “is not something you want to mess with casually…It has to address something profound…and it needs to be something broad.”
Given the state of North Carolina politics, it’s not surprising that the process of getting these amendments on the ballot — one marked by allegations and litigation — is almost as much of a point of contention as their content. And there’s evidence to suggest that the whole complicated matter has left a number of voters confused.
Back in September, an Elon University poll showed that 44 percent of the respondents were not aware there were Constitutional amendments on the ballot, and 62 percent said they had heard nothing or “a little” about them. (It is possible that a recent surge in media coverage of the amendments has moved those numbers).
Here, in basic summary form, are the key elements in the six proposed amendments.
- The first one would acknowledge the right to “hunt, fish and harvest wildlife” by traditional methods, although it does not say what those methods are.
- The second seeks to “strengthen protections for victims of crime” and “establish certain absolute basic rights for victims.” It would also increase the types of crimes that would trigger these victims’ rights.
- The third would reduce the maximum income tax rate in the state from its current cap of 10 percent to 7 percent. The actual state individual income tax rate is now at 5.499 percent.
- The fourth would require some form of photo identification before people could vote in person, leaving it to the legislature to determine what constitutes valid ID.
- The fifth would remove from the governor the power to appoint someone to fill a judicial vacancy and transfer much of that power to the legislature, which would choose the finalists for the post. It would also lengthen the time an appointed judge would serve before facing an election and a public verdict.
- The last amendment would reshape the state’s Board of Ethics and Elections and overturn a State Supreme Court ruling by reducing its members from 9 to 8, removing the member who does not belong to either political party, and mandating that the governor pick the members from lists submitted by legislative party leaders. This also has the potential to create 4-4 partisan ties on the board.
To say the two state parties disagree on the substance and impact of the amendments is a substantial understatement. The N.C. GOP says the hunting and fishing proposal would help the economy and ensure that “North Carolina remains a sportsman’s paradise.” Democrats say the measure was put on the ballot to bolster Republican turnout on Nov. 6 and could “create backdoor restrictions on future common-sense guns safety laws.”
Democrats contend the victims’ rights amendment is “unnecessary” and “could impede victims’ ability to have their day in court.” Republicans counter that they “expand the constitutional rights of victims of crime and their families.” The GOP says the tax cap amendment allows voters to “say no to a return to the days of spendthrift politicians,” high taxes and budget deficits. Democrats assert that it will “starve” resources for public schools and hamstring the state’s ability to “deal with future recessions.”
Republican efforts to enact a voter ID law have a lot of recent history in North Carolina. In 2016, a federal appeals court ruled that the law passed by the legislature was discriminatory and targeted African-Americans with “almost surgical precision.” Now the issue is back on the ballot. The N.C. Democratic Party says it will create “new hurdles to the ballot box for seniors, veterans, young people, and people of color.” Republicans say it “will curtail questions of voter fraud” and is “hugely popular in North Carolina and across the country.”
At the Oct. 10 LWV forum, Craig Merrill reiterated the League’s strong opposition and its view that the photo ID amendment “disenfranchises voters.”
Democrats see the effort to shift much of the power for judicial appointments from the governor to the legislature as giving “a few partisan politicians power to cherry-pick judges, undermining judicial independence.” Their GOP rivals argue that it “would end the practice of patronage judicial appointments.”
Finally, the Republican Party says the new Elections and Ethics Board would be “free from the influence from the legislative, executive, or judicial branches of state government.” Democrats say its ‘4—4’ makeup means the the board “is set up to fail – exactly what legislators want.”
Those last two proposed amendments have triggered opposition from noteworthy quarters. In a highly unusual display of bi-partisan unity, all five living former North Carolina governors — three Democrats and two Republicans — gathered in August to denounce them as a power grab by the legislature. When he spoke at the event, ex-GOP Governor Pat McCrory declared: “Don’t hijack our Constitution, especially through two deceitful and misleading amendments…”
That sentiment was reinforced in a statement issued by six former North Carolina Supreme Court Justices who asserted that the two amendments would “destroy our State’s balance of power — the separation of powers — and our system of checks and balances.”
In addition, Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, filed suit to stop the two amendments in question. After a three-judge panel initially blocked the amendments because they were misleading and unclear, state legislators modified some of the language in them. Cooper then tried again, unsuccessfully, to remove the two ballot questions.
Cooper was not the only litigant. A coalition including the North Carolina NAACP and Clean Air Carolina sued unsuccessfully to block four of the six amendments — the photo ID, the tax cap and the two that reshuffled power from the executive to legislative branches of government.
A statement announcing the litigation warned that the amendments “would threaten voting rights, radically restructure the government, and significantly erode the separation of state powers.” That was also the view of the LWV, which in Merrill’s words, considered the last two amendments an attempt at “a power transfer from the governor to the General Assembly.”
For all of this debate and disagreement over the amendments, the ultimate question is: What do the voters think? The Raleigh-based conservative policy organization, the Civitas Institute, has produced some polling on the subject — and the two amendments asked about seem popular.
In a September survey of 500 likely voters, 65 percent of the respondents favored the photo ID amendment, while 32 percent were opposed. The income tax cap registered as equally popular in the survey, with 60 percent supporting and 22 percent opposing.
One frequent complaint by many opponents of the amendments is that they are misleading and confusing as presented on the actual ballot, with bare-bones wording that is not accompanied by important explanatory information.
The online survey done by Elon University in September suggests that voter positions might change, to some degree, when a more detailed explanation written by state officials was provided to them. After hearing that explanation, the survey reported that support for the tax cap fell from 56 to 45 percent, while support for the photo ID declined modestly — from 63 to 59 percent.