The NC GOP’s amendment plan: Fool the voters

Election Day is Nov. 6.
Election Day is Nov. 6. AP

Republican leaders have criticized legal efforts to keep six proposed state constitutional amendments off the November ballot by declaring that voters have a right to have to their say.

Now, thanks to an Elon University Poll, we have a preview of what most voters will say — “What’s this?”

The independent survey asked 1,500 registered voters about two of the six proposed amendments, one requiring a photo ID to vote and another that would lower the cap on state income taxes from 10 percent to 7 percent (the N.C. personal income tax rate is now 5.499 percent).

More than half of those surveyed were unaware that any amendments will be on the ballot. Two-thirds of them said they had heard “nothing or only a little” about the amendments with less than two months to go before the election.

Jason Husser, poll director and associate professor of political science, said in a press release that, “North Carolina voters answering amendment ballot questions have the potential to make very important and extremely long-lasting changes to laws in the state. However, a large portion of those voters are either unaware of the proposed amendments or confused by what their vote will actually enact.”

For Republican leaders, this lack of awareness and general confusion about the impact of the amendments isn’t a problem. It’s their intention. Their strategy for gaining voter approval of amendments that range from needless to dangerous relies on voters being kept in the dark.

That’s why the most consequential amendments were written with vague and misleading language. And that’s why the legislature came back into special session to block a commission from adding clarifying captions about the amendments to the ballot. And that’s why a three-judge panel found the language of two amendment ballot questions so inaccurate that it ordered the legislature to rewrite them.

Informing voters exposes this partisan abuse of the amendment process. When the Elon pollsters read the commission’s official explanations of the amendments that will be distributed to local election boards, support for the photo ID and tax cap amendments dropped. But voters will have to seek out those explanations. They won’t be on the ballot.

The idea that these Republicans want “the people” to decide has been absurd from the start. They have shown no interest in hearing from the people since they took control of the legislature in 2011. Public hearings on legislation, when they occur, are often for show only. And every effort has been made to suppress the public’s voice through extreme gerrymandering, laws that make it harder to vote and the mass arrests of protesters.

Now, with their veto-proof majorities at risk in November’s election, Republicans are trying to legislate years ahead. They want amendments that will lock-in tax rates, switch appointment powers from the Democratic governor to the legislature and establish an as yet undefined voter ID requirement that will mostly affect constituencies that tend to vote Democratic.

It’s likely this cynical strategy to subvert the democratic process by using the direct democracy of a statewide vote will work. The amendments will be presented as popular or harmless-sounding changes, but the negative consequences are left unsaid.

What voters will find on their ballots in November won’t be what an amendment should be: a broad and easily understood change that deserves the durable protection of being added to the state Constitution. What they’ll find are tricks presented as improvements.