This election season, North Carolinians will vote on six constitutional amendments. Civic groups and media have tried to help the public learn more about the wide-ranging proposals. I hosted a discussion at my university because I believe we should have frequent debates over our constitution.
But I’m also a constitutional conservative; the burden of proof lies with those advocating change. I’ve heard arguments from different perspectives. I’ve read the legal texts and the relevant academic research. I see six reasons why those arguing to “Nix All Six” are right:
1) The amendments are solutions in search of problems. There is no movement to restrict hunting and fishing, but the amendment implies that such a specter is haunting us. The victims’ rights amendment includes minimal substantive changes to the rights already in Article 1 Section 37 of the constitution. The proposal for photo voter identification to fight “voter fraud” is the most egregious. All available evidence shows that in-person voter fraud is astonishingly rare, while the “solution” risks preventing hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians from exercising their rights. Voter ID is like chemotherapy for a cold.
2) The deliberation process falls short of the high standard for constitutional debates. Constitutional changes correctly face a higher standard of scrutiny. Supporters have met the standard on the formal side, but fall well short on more fundamental norms. In some cases legislators had only hours to consider constitutional amendments, because a rare General Assembly supermajority could prevent debate. That supermajority, however, exists only because the majority party has abused the redistricting process to ensure party representation out of proportion to their vote share. This gerrymandered supermajority taints the legitimacy of the proposed amendments.
3) Proponents have provided precious little information. Constitutional amendments should be moments of democratic engagement. Our elected officials should make the case for amending the constitution at public forums streamed into our laptops and living rooms. As a voter, I’ve done my work to find and share information. Why aren’t the elected officials pushing these changes doing the same? Even their wording on the proposals is misleading. The proposed income tax cap does not “lower the income tax rate” to 7 percent, as ballots will read. The personal income tax rate in North Carolina is already 5.499%. And if one party unanimously opposes the creation of a “bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement,” it is not bipartisan.
4) Proponents are asking us to vote without knowing how the amendments will be implemented. Five of the amendments require the General Assembly pass implementing language. What forms of voter identification will be acceptable? How many seats on the judicial vacancies commissions will each branch of government be given? We don’t know. Underscoring the importance of implementation, research shows that tax caps just change which taxes are levied, not how much. Why not lay out those details in the amendment or provide implementing language in advance? “Vote first, know later” hampers government accountability.
5) These amendments will make North Carolina harder to govern. Contrary to supporters’ message, an even number on the board of elections is just as likely to promote gridlock as to promote bipartisanship. Gridlock means boards cannot effectively organize elections. In Wake County, one person’s refusal to agree could mean that there is a single early voting site for 734,774 eligible voters. Opponents of the victims’ rights amendment point out that the small procedural changes will be extremely costly and further stall a justice system that is already too slow. In judicial appointments, the chief justice would play a key role. If there is a vacancy in the office of chief justice, as has happened with four out of the last five, there is no provision to fill that vacancy if the General Assembly is not in session. There is also no provision to fill a vacancy in any judgeship during the entire final year of that judge’s term.
6) This is mostly about the legislature taking power from the governor. This isn’t inherently bad, but the governor enjoys the legitimacy of a statewide vote. Meanwhile, legislative power in recent years has accumulated in the hands of the majority leaders in the House and Senate. These proposals mean taking power from a statewide elected office and giving it to two people who are elected by a few thousand voters — voters who were practically hand-selected by those same officials in gerrymandered districts.
I can’t imagine that anyone believes the process behind these six proposals sets a positive model for the future. Instead of providing full information, legislative leaders are relying on voters to be ill-informed and vote based on partial, misleading ballot descriptions. It doesn’t meet the constitutional standard.