Legislators eliminate ballot captions from amendments

By: Lindsay Marchello - Kari Travis - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — The General Assembly sent Gov. Roy Cooper a bill changing how proposed constitutional amendments will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. Democrats claimed the move was motivated by fear the ballot language would portray the six amendments in an unfavorable light.

In a special session convened with less than 24 hours’ notice, Republicans introduced House Bill 3 on Tuesday, July 24. It passed the House after brief debate by a 67-36 margin. H.B. 3 removes a requirement for ballots to include a brief caption describing what each constitutional amendment would do. Instead of the short caption, the words “Constitutional Amendment” and the title of the amendment will appear for each measure on the ballot.

The Senate later passed the measure 27-14.

The bill dealt with changes to the mission of the Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, established in 1983. It’s charged with writing descriptions of the amendments in plain language. That language had been posted on placards at polling sites and included in voting guides the secretary of state and the State Board of Elections sent to registered voters. In 2016, Republican lawmakers passed a law ordering the commission also to write amendment summaries on ballots.

Republicans got uneasy, as the commission now has two Democratic members — Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein — and only one Republican, Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, last weekend asked House Speaker Tim Moore to convene the special session, saying the commission was delaying its work and was likely to come up with ballot language that would turn voters against the amendments.

Lewis said Tuesday H.B. 3 restores the commission’s original purpose.

“Their charge is still to write descriptions in plain language of what these amendments do.” he said during House Rules Committee debate. “Those will be published on poll sites and distributed by the Secretary of State at her discretion to any organization that asks for them.”

Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, questioned why the change was necessary now, especially since the commission had already begun its work.

“Someone decided in 2016 to give them the ability to write the caption on the ballot. … we’ve obviously changed our minds,” Jackson said. “What changed between 2016? Why are we doing this at such a late date?”

Lewis didn’t say why the change was needed now, only that the bill was to relieve the commission from its newly assigned duty.

Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, said this special session was motivated by unsubstantiated fear that the commission members would politicize the ballot language process.

“I find it wildly ironic to suggest an independent commission who was specifically given the authority by this body to craft the captions two years ago is more politically motivated than this General Assembly,” Butler said.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake said the commission was taking longer than necessary to craft the language and that H.B. 3 would make sure it would complete its work in time for ballots to be printed and distributed.

“All we are talking about here are the captions, the titles, of these amendments. That could have been done weeks ago,” Dollar said.

Republican legislators rankled their Democratic colleagues by calling the special legislative session in the first place and amending the rules to make the process faster.

These changes included allowing bills to be heard and passed on the same day they’re filed, and letting proposed committee substitutes be presented to committee members without giving them time to be reviewed before committees meet.

Republicans, likely anticipating Gov. Roy Cooper to hand down vetoes, also amended the rules to permit same-day votes on veto overrides.

In the Senate, Republicans said Democrats on the ballot commission went awry when they “started leaking out how they wanted to change the wording on the ballot for these constitutional amendments,” said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow.

Wording for ballot captions would’ve been different than the legislature intended, he said.

Republican lawmakers are the ones pulling political strings, said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, during Senate debate.

“I think we should be very honest, candid, and sincere with each other. If the makeup of this commission had two Republicans and one Democrat, we wouldn’t be here,” McKissick said.

If Buck Newton, a former Republican senator who in 2016 ran for state attorney general, hadn’t lost to Stein, Republicans wouldn’t care who wrote captions for the amendments, McKissick said.

Republicans are just “restoring common sense and the constitutional prerogative to do what is our job to do,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph.

But Democrats called the special legislative session an expensive waste of taxpayer dollars — and said Republicans are eliminating public input.

The Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has said it must have ballot language ready by Aug. 8 to prepare, proofread, and print the more than 1,400 ballot variations it will have to distribute to North Carolina voters this fall.

The legislature is expected to maintain skeletal, no-vote sessions so that Cooper will have to veto any bills within 10 days. If lawmakers adjourned sine die, Cooper would have 30 days to decide on the bills.

Any Cooper vetoes may be overridden. It’s also possible if not likely that legislation passed over Cooper’s veto will be challenged in court.

The General Assembly also passed Senate Bill 3, a measure requiring candidates for judicial races to be registered with the party they’ve listed on the ballot for at least 90 days before filing. It would align the requirements for judicial hopefuls with those for all other partisan races in North Carolina.

The bill was inspired in part by the decision of longtime Democrat Chris Anglin to run for a state Supreme Court position against GOP incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson as a Republican. Anglin changed his party affiliation to Republican roughly three weeks before he filed for the Supreme Court seat.

Lindsay Marchello

Kari Travis

Carolina Journal