Political observers call it a “blue moon election.”
Once every 12 years, North Carolinians go to the ballot box and face an election with no statewide senate or governor’s race. Despite the lack of headline races, there’s still plenty of drama this year keeping the political stakes high. In addition to local races and judicial vacancies, North Carolina will vote on six constitutional amendments proposed by the General Assembly.
At a talk last Thursday sponsored by POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service, Mac McCorkle, professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy, described what each of the six amendments could mean for the future of North Carolina.
Unlike other states, McCorkle said, North Carolina law does not provide a method for citizens to propose constitutional amendments or ballot initiatives.
“It is very unclear what’s going to happen on all of those,” he said.
McCorkle, who has worked for state and federal candidates in North Carolina and 28 other states, said that growing metropolitanization concerns the Republican supermajority in the state’s legislature.
“It’s really clear that our state is getting more multicultural, more educated, and the economy is moving more into the cities,” he said. “Rather than thinking about the future, [Republicans] are thinking in terms of next year. They’re worried about demography being destiny in North Carolina.”
McCorkle discussed the implications of each constitutional amendment:
Judicial Vacancies Amendment
“Constitutional amendment to change the process for filling judicial vacancies that occur between judicial elections from a process in which the Governor has sole appointment power to a process in which the people of the State nominate individuals to fill vacancies by way of a commission comprised of appointees made by the judicial, executive, and legislative branches charged with making recommendations to the legislature as to which nominees are deemed qualified; then the legislature will recommend at least two nominees to the Governor via legislative action not subject to gubernatorial veto; and the Governor will appoint judges from among these nominees.”
This amendment would change the process of filling judicial vacancies, a power that currently belongs to the state’s governor. An independent commission would be created to recommend names to fill a vacant seat, and the legislature recommend at least two choices to the governor. The state’s governor would be able to decide between the list approved by the legislature.
“The judicial appointment amendment has been the focus of direct attack by not just Democrats, but by former Republican governors and justices,” McCorkle said. “The Republicans could choose two Republican legislators, and Governor Cooper would have to pick between one of those two.”
Ethics and Elections Board Amendment
“Constitutional amendment to establish an eight-member Bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement in the Constitution to administer ethics and elections law.”
The Bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement currently exists in North Carolina as a nine-member body, composed of four Democrats, four Republicans, and one independent, all appointed by the state’s governor. This amendment would reduce the number of members to eight, eliminating the independent member of the board. The power to appoint members would shift from the governor to the legislature.
“If you have a four-four vote, it’s not going to be a strong commission at all,” McCorkle said. “The main agenda seems to be to rob them of any power.”
Voter ID Amendment
“Constitutional amendment to require voters to provide photo identification before voting in person.”
This amendment would require voters to provide a form of photo identification. The amendment text does not provide specific requirements, but would rather direct the legislature to write laws implementing the amendment.
“The Voter ID amendment is a classic case of an empty vessel that will be filled by legislation,” McCorkle said.
The amendment and any subsequent legislation would be subject to federal law, which currently requires that voters whose eligibility is in question be provided a provisional ballot.
“It’s unclear whether Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment [to the U.S. Supreme Court] will change federal law fundamentally, but there probably will be some chipping away,” he said.
State Income Tax Amendment
“Constitutional amendment to reduce the income tax rate in North Carolina to a maximum allowable rate of seven percent.”
North Carolina’s constitution currently caps state income tax at 10 percent, and this amendment would reduce the cap to 7 percent.
McCorkle said that capping the income tax would not reduce the tax burden, but rather limit the income tax, potentially forcing the legislature to look to other means to gain revenue.
“If we had an economic slowdown like the recession in 2008, instead of being able to raise the tax above 7 percent, you would have to go to the sales tax or you simply couldn’t fund the government,” he said.
Victims’ Rights Amendment
“Constitutional amendment to strengthen protections for victims of crime; to establish certain absolute basic rights for victims; and to ensure the enforcement of these rights.”
This amendment expands the rights of victims of crime, allowing them to be heard in various parts of criminal proceedings, and extends those rights to juvenile crimes.
McCorkle cautioned, however, that it is not clear this would be fully funded by the General Assembly.
“If it was fully funded, I don’t know that this would be a bad policy at all,” he said. “Given the legislature’s track record, and given what’s happened at other states, this has created a huge traffic jam.”
Hunting and Fishing Amendment
“Constitutional amendment protecting the right of the people to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife.”
This amendment enshrines a right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife in the state constitution, and also establishes these means as “the preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.”
“Whatever the legislature decides to do based on this amendment would be subject to federal law and federal lawsuits,” McCorkle said. “There will be lots of litigation about these things and unintended consequences that people need to be aware of.”