November ballots will have amendments, not just candidates

By: Julie Havlak - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — Voters will decide on six constitutional amendments in the general election, including those involving victims rights, hunting rights, and a photo ID requirement to vote.

More amendments will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot than in any single election since the adoption of the 1971 N.C. Constitution.

Republicans could be using the amendments to drum up support for November, when they stand to lose the supermajorities that enabled them to push bills past gubernatorial vetoes, said David McLennan, visiting professor of political science at Meredith College.

“This is a way of perhaps to make them permanent or at least in the constitution no matter what happens in November,” said McLennan. “The main political strategy is to make sure that issues that are important to Republicans get into our government system.”

The strategy might be a winning one. Out of the 45 amendments proposed since the adoption of the 1971 constitution, voters rejected just eight.

“When amendments are put on the ballot by the legislature, the voters have approved them by about 80 percent,” said John Dinan, professor of politics at Wake Forest University. “If the legislature puts an amendment on the ballot, people are likely to give it the benefit of the doubt.”

This year’s ballot is unusual: Voters haven’t seen this many amendments since the 1980s.

Still, compared to states in the deep South and the far West, the ballot is modest. Louisiana and South Carolina amend their constitutions about four times each year, and the list of their amendments dwarfs that of Vermont, which only amends its constitution an average of once every four years.

“North Carolina’s 1971 Constitution has been amended just under once per year on average,” Dinan said. “That is in the broad middle of the pack in terms of the amendment rates of the 50 states.”

With the exception of the tax cap, the constitutional amendments represent typical uses of the constitution to define rights or mediate power disputes, said Dinan. McLennan was less convinced.

“First of all, the constitution is not meant to take the place of the legislative process,” McLennan said. “Typically, constitutions are there to establish basic processes and rights for all citizens. … Amendments are not so narrow, and I hate to use this term, but partisan.”

The number of amendments will make for interesting campaigns, said McLennan.

“When you put something in the constitution, it’s a big deal,” McLennan said. “You’re asking citizens whose level of political knowledge and interest varies to make decisions that really almost make permanent changes to how government works in the state of North Carolina.”

• House Bill 551: Strengthening Victims’ Rights

Otherwise known as “Marsy’s Law,” H.B. 551 would offer the victims of violent crimes better help, more access to court proceedings, and the ability to hire their own attorney. If voters approve the amendment, North Carolina would become the fourth state to add ideas from Marsy’s Law to its constitution. The N.C. Constitution already contains protections for crime victims, but legislators have called those laws toothless. The bill generated concerns about unintentional costs after a leaked fiscal note estimated the cost of enforcing the amendment at $30.5 million per year. It passed the House 107-9, and the Senate 45-1.

• H.B. 913: Bipartisan Ethics and Elections Enforcement

In the latest struggle between the legislature and Gov. Roy Cooper over state elections, this amendment would wrest appointments from the governor and put the legislature in charge; four members would be chosen by party holding the majority in the General Assembly, four by the minority party. The struggle began in December 2016, before Cooper was inaugurated, when the General Assembly passed its first law merging the former State Board of Elections with the N.C. Ethics Commission. Various combinations of that board were rejected by state courts as a violation of separation of powers. Republicans said a constitutional amendment was needed to prevent future court interference and ensure no party had a majority on the board. It passed the House 74-44, and the Senate 32-14.

• H.B. 1092: Constitutional Amendment – Require Photo ID to Vote

Voters would have to present photo identification to vote in person if this bill is approved in November. After hours of debate between Republicans intent on stopping voter fraud and Democrats critical of any barrier on minorities, the bill passed the House 74-43, and the Senate 33-14. It marks General Assembly’s second attempt to institute voter ID, as the previous voter ID law was struck down by federal courts. H.B. 1092 has a 69 percent approval rating, according to a Civitas Institute poll.

• Senate Bill 75: Constitutional Amendment – Maximum Income Tax Rate of 7 percent

This amendment would freeze the income tax rate just above the current 5.49 percent level and well below the existing cap of 10 percent. The Senate passed the amendment in 2017, but the House refused to adopt a 5.5 percent rate. Instead, the House placed the cap at 7 percent. Even though Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, spoke against the 7 percent cap the day after the House vote, Senate leader Phil Berger told fellow Republicans that was the best they could expect. The Senate then concurred with the House, 33-14. The income tax cap amendment is the most unorthodox of the amendments, said McLennan and Dinan. “That’s the one that most deviates from the traditional function of amendments to add rights or resolving institutional powers,” Dinan said. “The income tax amendment would be essentially locking in a current policy position.” It passed the House 73-45. Civitas found 66 percent of registered voters polled would favor the 5.5 percent cap.

• S.B. 677: Protect Right to Hunt and Fish

This bill would enshrine the right to hunt and fish in the N.C. Constitution, potentially opening existing Sunday hunting restrictions to challenges in court. Although the bill drew fire from Democrats, who called the amendment frivolous or environmentally unethical, it passed the House 92-23, and the Senate 41-6. A Civitas poll found 72 percent support from likely voters.

• S.B. 814: Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment

The amendment would siphon power away from the governor by giving legislators a role in filling judicial vacancies. Governors now fill vacancies when they arise during judicial terms. Sponsors of the amendment said, given recent history, a two-term governor would fill about 40 percent of judicial seats by appointment. The amendment requires the General Assembly to source candidates from a “nonpartisan judicial merit commission” to prevent any branch of government from securing a majority of appointments to the nine-member commission. Democrats protested a lack of details regarding candidates’ qualifications, which would be outlined by the General Assembly if voters approve the amendment.

Julie Havlak

Carolina Journal