Democracy 101: The Fight Over The Supermajority

Democracy 101: The Fight Over The Supermajority

2:21pm Oct 02, 2018
In this July file photo, members of the North Carolina House gather for a special session at the General Assembly in Raleigh. The balance of Democrat and Republican members could shift after the November elections, and both parties are preparing for a fight. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, file)

This is part of our election-year civics series, Democracy 101. Click here to find more of our stories about important issues in North Carolina politics. 

There are plenty of issues North Carolina voters will consider this election season: immigration, health care, the economy, and more.

But among the state’s political leaders, there’s one very big thing at stake: the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly.

But what is a supermajority? And why are Democrats and Republicans fighting so hard over it?

How The Sausage Gets Made

Let’s start here: in most legislative bodies, all you need to pass a bill is 50 percent of the available votes plus one. Just a simple majority.

That’s what both major political parties typically hope for when an election comes around. After all, if you have the votes, you can move your agenda forward.

That’s not always enough, though. In North Carolina, for example, most bills need to be signed by the governor to become law. And if he doesn’t like one, he can shoot it down with a veto.

But the legislature has an ace in the hole here. If the majority can muster enough votes, they can overrule the governor and create the law anyway.

And that, with the help of Salem College political scientist Elizabeth Wemlinger, is what we’re talking about today.

“So, a supermajority is where your legislature is composed of enough of one political party to override any vetoes by the governor,” Wemlinger says.

Ah, the supermajority. According to the North Carolina Constitution, it takes three-fifths of both the House and the Senate to override the governor’s veto. And if they stay unified, state Republicans currently have enough votes to do so.

Cutting Out The Middleman

That’s why having a supermajority is so powerful: if you have the numbers, your party can basically ignore the governor in any legislative situation. Which in theory, means you can pass almost any law you want.

Right now, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper is on the receiving end of those overrides. But, as Wemlinger points out, it’s happened to others too.

“We saw this even when [Pat] McCrory was governor, who was a more moderate Republican,” she says.

That’s right. Former Republican Governor Pat McCrory had his veto overridden on a number of occasions.

Clearly, having a supermajority is a huge amount of power. Essentially, it allows the legislature to control all of state government. And that’s why this election is so high-stakes for both parties, and for the residents of North Carolina.

In this case, Republicans want to keep that power. And Democrats want to grab some of it back.

So what happens if they do? Well, according to Wemlinger, if enough Democrats are elected to the General Assembly in November, it could bring about the need to do something that’s out of fashion in many political circles: compromise.

“It’s only if we do see that the supermajority is broken, that policy will be moderated," she says. "It will force Republican legislators to compromise on some of these issues and work, again, with the governor and with members of the other party.”

That's how many scholars would argue our system of divided government is supposed to work. Each branch is able to check the other so no one branch gets too powerful. But there's a case to be made that North Carolina government isn't working that way right now, because the governor doesn’t really have much of a check on the General Assembly.

What Do We Expect To Happen?

How likely is it that voters will help Democrats break the supermajority? It’s hard to know for sure, but for Republicans, the margin for error is razor thin.

How thin? Well, consider this: if Democrats can pick up either four seats in the House, or six in the Senate, they’ll break the Republican supermajority. And they’re already expected to win a few of those races.

That’s why both parties started raising money and organizing and fundraising hard. It's also why both parties tried to field candidates in every possible district, even those that are strongholds for the other side. They know that, if the GOP loses its veto-proof numbers, the way state government operates will change dramatically.

Ultimately, of course, voters will get to decide this fall whether they think legislators are doing a good job, and by extension, whether the supermajority will stay intact.

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