The six state constitutional amendments up for consideration in this year’s general election have already faced an uphill climb to the voting booth. In August, North Carolina’s legislature rushed back to Raleigh for a special session to rewrite ballot descriptions for two amendments after a panel of Superior Court judges ruled their language to be misleading. As late as early September, lawsuits by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the N.C. NAACP sought to keep four amendments off the ballot.
But those hurdles have now been cleared, and voters will have the final say as to whether the six amendments — each proposed and put on the ballot by Republican members of the General Assembly — become law. The lawmakers elected in this year’s midterms will then be tasked with writing the enabling legislation that will put the amendments into practice.
While the proposals originated in Raleigh, they will apply across all of North Carolina, and Asheville’s political leaders have strong views about their impacts. To cover this range of opinions, Xpress sought comment on the amendments from the local leadership of each state-recognized political party: Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Green and Constitution.
Carl Mumpower, chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party, sees the six amendments as a bulwark against an “unprecedented attack on our state’s historical values and system of governance” and encourages voters to support them all. In contrast, both Democratic and Green party leaders aim to “nix all six,” while the Libertarians support only a lower constitutional cap on state income taxes. (David Waddell, a member of the N.C. Constitution Party executive committee, said the party had not developed official positions on the amendments due to its convention being postponed by Hurricane Florence.)
Perhaps the two most controversial amendments on the ballot would transfer power from the governor to the General Assembly — moves publicly denounced by all five of North Carolina’s living former governors, Republican and Democrat alike. As explained by the state’s bipartisan Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, the first would make the governor choose from legislature-appointed candidates for judicial vacancies instead of picking a replacement directly.
The second amendment would replace the existing nine-person Bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections, currently selected by the governor, with an eight-person board nominated by legislative leaders. The reduction in size would come from removing the board’s politically unaffiliated representative, whom the governor currently picks from nominations provided by the other board members.
Additionally, the CAPC suggests that this change “could drastically reduce early voting opportunities” due to 4-4 tie votes along party lines. If the state board fails to rule on a county elections board’s disagreement about early voting sites, then according to current law, only the county’s election office is a valid site.
Buncombe County Democratic Party Chair Jeff Rose says that these changes give more strength to the “incredibly gerrymandered General Assembly” rather than the statewide-elected governor. “We believe this is another dangerous overreach by the Republican majority, using our constitution as a tool to take power away from the governor simply because he is a Democrat,” he says.
But Mumpower maintains that the amendments will apply equally to Republicans and Democrats and spread power within the larger body of the General Assembly instead of concentrating it with the governor. “Republicans like amendments that support the idea of big people over big government,” he says.
Another of the proposed amendments would require voters to display photographic identification to poll workers before voting in person. The CAPC notes that the ballot item contains no further details about acceptable and unacceptable forms of ID, leaving the General Assembly free to determine those rules through future legislation.
Mumpower says the amendment is critical to protect the democratic process from “unscrupulous individuals, political movements and special-interest groups who know no boundaries in attempting to secure their ideations.” He adds that ID is already necessary for everyday actions such as air travel and purchasing alcohol.
Other party leaders, however, are skeptical of the Republican rationale. “We see no fraud in the election cycles that needs rectifying [and] are not afraid of a mythical immigrant who fills his time by voting in elections to increase the welfare that he does not qualify for,” says Charles Lanahan, chair of the Libertarian Party of Buncombe County. “The historical decentralized control of the voting process is better than a state-mandated ID to qualify for the very fundamental act of a citizen in a free republic.”
Western North Carolina Green Party Chair Camille McCarthy calls the amendment “a thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise voters, particularly minorities.” The Green Party platform, she adds, hopes to expand voting access by making Election Day a holiday and reversing felon disenfranchisement.
Rose also has concerns about disparate impacts on nonwhite voters from the amendment, which was challenged by an NAACP lawsuit. He points to a 2016 ruling by a federal appeals court that a previous Republican-authored state voter ID law chose its restrictions to specifically target African-Americans. “Since there is no enabling legislation in this amendment, the legislature could bring that same ID law back,” Rose argues.
“The photo ID amendment has the potential to strip hundreds of thousands of legally registered voters of their rights in our state,” Rose continues. “Voters already prove their citizenship and identity when registering to vote, and adding those same checks to the ballot box will mean thousands of people cannot vote.”
The amendment to the current victims’ rights amendment is modeled after Marsy’s Law, a piece of legislation first passed by California voters in 2008. CAPC explains that the new language would expand the rights of crime victims to be heard throughout the legal process, as well as expand the scope of offenses triggering those rights to “all crimes against the person and felony property crimes.” Enforcing the law would cost state taxpayers an estimated $11 million annually.
Rose is concerned that this amendment would “slow down the justice system” and “lead to more families taking on roles in prosecutions.” He says North Carolina already requires courts to notify victims of many steps in the legal process, including court dates and the potential parole of offenders.
While Lanahan calls the underlying law “an admirable undertaking,” he says it’s an overreach to enshrine expanded victims’ rights as an amendment. “It removes discretion from the prosecutors and judges in regards to the balance between the rights of a victim of a crime and the rights of any citizen to be presumed innocent,” he argues.
Mumpower believes this balance is already tilted in favor of criminals. The amendment, he says, would prevent victims from suffering further at the hands of the justice system.
“Increasingly in our society, criminals are afforded extraordinary protections that prioritize rights over responsibilities,” Mumpower says. “Republicans believe those harmed by crime deserve considerations at least equal to those who commit those crimes.”
In the only point of agreement between Republican positions on the amendments and those of other parties, Lanahan and the Libertarians support an amendment that would cap state income tax rates at 7 percent. The change would not reduce current taxes — 5.499 percent for individuals and 3 percent for corporations — but would lower the existing cap of 10 percent.
“We are generally against all unnecessary taxes in general and advocate limited government wherever possible,” Lanahan says. “That being said, this cap would be symbolic if not actually needed, and it’s a symbol the Libertarian Party would be glad to stand behind.”
Mumpower’s explanation for his party’s support of the amendment takes a more confrontational tone. “This amendment seeks to impair political movements who believe in robbing one set of pockets to fill another of their choosing,” he says. “Republicans believe in keeping the lion’s share of earned money in the pockets of those who work for that money.”
The Democrats and Greens both object to the tax cap reduction on economic justice grounds. The two parties claim that limiting income taxes disproportionately benefits wealthy citizens and reduces the government’s ability to respond to unexpected crises.
“[The amendment] limits the ways our lawmakers can raise revenues to sales tax, which disproportionately impacts lower-income and middle-class North Carolinians. It’s another example of Republicans using their supermajority to protect the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the state,” Rose says.
Meanwhile, McCarthy believes the tax cap will move the state’s spending plans in the wrong direction. “We need health care, high-quality education, a higher minimum wage and renewable energy, not tax breaks for the rich,” she says. “This benefits monied interests at the expense of the majority of our citizens.”
The final amendment affirms the rights of North Carolina’s citizens to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife. As previously covered in Xpress (see “Hunting for votes,” July 4), the proposal’s language establishes hunting and fishing as “preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife” and does not impact existing laws about trespassing, property rights and eminent domain.
McCarthy questions the need for such an amendment, saying it “gives the false impression that these rights are under threat to begin with.” Rose agrees and claims that Republicans only put the amendment on the ballot to attract otherwise unmotivated voters to midterm elections.
Mumpower, however, says the amendment is necessary to guard against changing views of outdoor activity. “The why is simple: Too many people who hunt, fish and harvest with a cart in a grocery store are seeking to undermine the rights of those who do so with a gun or pole out in nature,” he explains. “Republicans recognize we do not secure a healthy future by betraying our past.”
More information on the amendments is available at the CAPC website. Referenda on all six amendments will appear on ballots for early voting and on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6.