If North Carolinians are even aware that they’ll have the chance to vote on changes to the state constitution this November, there’s a good chance they’ll still be confused about what they’re being asked to approve.
A new poll from Elon University asked registered voters around the state about the six proposed constitutional amendments that will be on the ballot this year. The result: Most people don’t know much about the amendments, and in some cases people think the amendments would have the opposite effect of what they would really do.
“It seems to me that a lot of voters are going to be making a permanent decision that could impact North Carolina for decades to come, based on pretty limited information,” said Jason Husser, the director of the Elon Poll.
While a small majority of the voters polled did know that there will be constitutional amendments on the ballot this November, almost none claimed to know “a lot” about what the amendments will do if they pass.
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Although 89 percent said they plan to vote in November, just 56 percent knew there will be amendments on the ballot — and only 8 percent said they’ve heard a lot about what the amendments would do.
John Dinan, a Wake Forest University political professor who is an expert on state-level constitutional amendments, said the results aren’t surprising.
“It’s normal for there to be a lot of undecided voters, at least at the beginning of the campaign,” he said. “That means there’s also a lot of opportunities to educate voters.”
Voters go to the polls on Nov. 6.
Amendments on the ballot
For those who would like more information, here’s a brief recap of the six amendments:
Voter ID: Create a requirement to show a photo ID to vote. The exact details are a mystery, however, since the General Assembly has not yet written the actual law that would be enacted if this amendment passes. North Carolina’s last attempt to create a voter ID law was ruled unconstitutional in 2016.
Income tax cap: The state’s current income tax rate is 5.499 percent, and that won’t change no matter what happens with this amendment. Instead, the amendment would lower the maximum possible rate that state income taxes could be raised to in the future, from 10 percent to 7 percent.
Changes to elections board: The board has four Democrats, four Republicans and one politically unaffiliated person. This amendment would remove the ninth — and potentially tiebreaking — vote and leave the board equally split with eight members. It would also transfer power to pick board members from the governor to the Legislature.
Changes to judicial appointments: When judges die, quit or retire, the governor appoints a new person to take over until the next election. This amendment would take that power away. In some cases it would be up to the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, and in other cases the amendment would require the governor to select an appointee from a list provided by the state Legislature.
Hunting and fishing: This amendment is broadly worded to re-affirm the rights of people to hunt and fish. It’s not entirely clear if it would make any actual changes to North Carolina law.
Marsy’s Law: This amendment would give additional rights to crime victims and is part of a national push to do so.
All six amendments were written by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, and the North Carolina GOP is asking people to vote in favor of all six. Meanwhile, the N.C. Democratic Party is asking people to vote against all six.
Dinan, however, said it’s possible that in November voters will approve some and deny others. While North Carolina does not have a history of frequently amending its constitution, he said, there are lessons to be learned from other states that do.
“Voters have been known to make distinctions,” he said. “We have states that have six amendments on the ballot on a regular basis, and voters will say ‘Yes’ to these four and ‘No’ to these two.”
For North Carolina Democrats in 2018, some amendments are more controversial than others.
No one challenged the hunting amendment or the victims’ rights amendment in court, and in the General Assembly both passed with support from Democrats as well as Republicans.
On the other hand, the amendments changing the board of elections and judicial appointments amendments drew a lawsuit from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. And the amendments about voter ID and the income tax cap drew a lawsuit from the NAACP and environmental groups. However, both Cooper and the NAACP were handed losses on Tuesday by the N.C. Supreme Court.
Cooper’s lawsuit had claimed that the way legislators chose to describe the amendments on the ballot would be misleading to voters, and on Tuesday night Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said he still believes that’s the case.
“These amendments are deceptive and will erode checks and balances in state government,” he said. “Every living former governor and Supreme Court chief justices from both parties have opposed these amendments and Governor Cooper will oppose them and continue to urge voters to understand their true impact.”
Republicans, however, point to previous polls that have found widespread support for some of the amendments, particularly voter ID.
Last month, while the lawsuits were still winding their way through the courts, House Speaker Tim Moore’s spokesman, Joseph Kyzer, called the NAACP’s lawsuit “a completely spurious argument already rejected by the courts simply to score points against overwhelmingly popular amendments.”
The Elon Poll released Thursday included specific questions about just two amendments, those dealing with voter ID and the income tax cap. Those were the same two that the NAACP had challenged. The poll found that the voter ID amendment has broad support and that while many voters are still undecided on the tax amendment, those who have made up their minds support it.
Just fewer than half of the voters also said the specific amendments will make them more likely to come out to vote — although it was unclear how many meant they were energized to vote for or against the amendments.
The Elon Poll also found a few surprising details about support for those two amendments.
Pollsters asked people to read the short amendment descriptions that voters will see on the ballot, then give their opinion of the amendment. Then, respondents were asked to read a more detailed description written by the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office, and asked again for their opinion.
For both the voter ID and tax cap amendments, support dropped after people read the more detailed description — although the dip in support wasn’t enough to give Democrats much hope.
Support for the voter ID amendment dropped from 63 percent to 59 percent. On the tax amendment, support dropped from 56 percent (with 15 percent opposed and 30 percent unsure) to 45 percent (with 27 percent opposed and 28 percent unsure).
Other poll questions about the amendments showed how confused some voters remained even after being told directly what the amendments would do.
On the voter ID amendment, one in every four respondents said the description of the amendment on the ballot didn’t give them enough information to make a decision, and 5 percent said they thought the amendment would actually increase voter fraud.
Voter ID laws are intended to stop fraud, although opponents say the laws do more to disenfranchise legitimate voters than they do to stop fraud. In North Carolina, voter fraud is almost nonexistent — and voter ID laws would fail to stop most of the fraud that does happen, which typically occurs when felons cast ballots before their voting rights have been restored. In 2016, ballots cast by felons accounted for 441 of the 508 cases of illegal voting that officials caught, out of 4.8 million people who voted, The News & Observer has reported.
For the tax amendment, even after pollsters informed people the amendment would not change what they owe in taxes, 13 percent said it would lower their taxes, 9 percent said it would raise their taxes and 22 percent said they didn’t know what it would do. Just 56 percent of people correctly answered that it would not affect their taxes.
Husser said that should raise concerns about efforts to educate voters, especially since “a lot of the people who gave those incorrect answers were people who had said they understood the amendments.”
More about the Elon Poll
The Elon University Poll has been gauging political opinions in North Carolina for 18 years.
Other polls in state politics are done by politically motivated organizations, like the conservative Civitas Institute or the liberal Public Policy Polling. But the Elon Poll does not contract with politicians or political groups, and is instead funded entirely by the university.
For this poll, the makeup of voters interviewed was virtually identical to the makeup of North Carolina’s 7 million voters — 38 percent Democrats, 30 percent Republicans and 32 percent something else. However, Husser noted that although Democrats outnumber Republicans in North Carolina, Republicans tend to have higher voter turnout.
The poll results were weighted slightly for a more accurate reflection of other demographic categories. Due to the polling methods used, pollsters did not assign the poll a margin of error, as is traditional, but instead gave it a different type of score — a credibility interval — of 2.7 percent.