The North Carolina General Assembly hopes to see new amendments to the state constitution added to November’s ballot.
When the General Assembly session closed last week, six new amendments had been approved on a variety of subjects, including the rights of crime victims, the right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife, a cap on the state income tax, selection for judicial vacancies, changes to the state board of elections and the transfer of appointment powers from the governor to the legislature and requiring a photo ID to vote.
The necessity of these amendments has been hotly contested, even though these proposed amendments are not finalized yet. The proposed amendments lack implementing language in the bills placing them on the ballot, which is something that is often needed if the amendment passes the referendum.
“I would say that this is the largest number of controversial amendments ever to be on the ballot since 1971,” said Gerry Cohen, former Director of Legislative Drafting at the General Assembly, to NC Policy Watch. “And five of the six amendments have no implementing legislation—not in the body of the bills that put them on the ballot and not in any other bill that was passed this session.”
This goes against existing statutory precedent. According to state statute, 75 days before the election the Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission must “prepare an explanation of the amendment, revision or new constitution in simple and commonly used language. The explanation shall include a short caption reflecting the contents, that shall not include a numerical or other references of order, to be used on the ballot and the printed summary.”
Two Democrats, Attorney General Josh Stein and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, currently sit on the commission. Stein and Marshall have been critical of the Republican majority in the General Assembly, and Cohen believes this could have important implications for the language describing the amendments.
“I think the title of the ballot question that has the most spin…is this one about the ‘bipartisan board of elections,’” said Cohen to NC Policy Watch. “The biggest change there is in the change in the balance of powers. The ballot question completely omits the most important part of the amendment, I think.”
This proposed amendment, if passed, would give the General Assembly greater appointment powers for boards and commissions statewide. These include appointments now made by the governor.
Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of History and Political Science at Catawba College, believes that the issues represented in the amendments are meant to resonate with conservative and rural voters in a year where Democrats have done remarkably well in local, state and federal elections.
“The hunting and fishing amendment, for instance—it’s probably not that controversial, but it’s geared toward certain identifying voters who are going to support that,” said Bitzer to NC Policy Watch.
While this amendment may not be controversial, others such as the Voter ID amendment have the potential to fire up both Republicans and Democrats. Lawmakers often try to settle political fights using constitutional amendments, which can be a powerful weapon. However, Bitzer warns about the danger of this strategy.
“If you embrace that philosophy of legislative dominance, of legislative supremacy, then when the shoe is on the other foot, don’t expect any forbearance from the opposition party,” said Bitzer.