Democracy 101: Questions, Questions, Everywhere (On Your Ballot)
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.
Voters heading to the polls will see six questions on the ballot that have nothing to do with candidates.
Those questions are proposed amendments to the state constitution, the highest law in North Carolina.
The discussion around them has been intense, and at times, confusing. So let’s try to break it down.
What we’re not talking about
Let’s get this out of the way first. For this Democracy 101, we’re going to be talking only about the statewide constitutional amendments, the questions everyone will vote on.
Now, depending on what county you live in, you might see a few additional ballot questions that are just meant for you and your neighbors. The ballot in Winston-Salem, for instance, features about a half dozen of these. But they are not related to the state constitution.
With that said, let’s start with some of the most controversial amendments: the ones that would shift power away from the governor.
Who gets to choose the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement?
One of the questions voters get to decide on is who gets to appoint the State Board of Elections. According to Wake Forest University political science professor John Dinan, for a long time, the legislature didn’t have much to do with that.
“Up until 2017, the traditional practice was: ‘whoever won the governorship, that party gets a majority on the elections board of the state,’” Dinan says. “[If you’re] going to decide who’s going to have the majority, it might as well be the governor’s party. Well, Republicans in the legislature weren’t so happy about that when the Democrats won the governorship.”
After several court battles, voters now get to decide.
If they vote Yes, then the Elections and Ethics Board shrinks to eight people, four Democrats and four Republicans. The governor will appoint them from lists submitted by both parties. If they vote No, the governor in power maintains control.
Filling the bench
That brings us to the other amendment tied to the executive branch. And this one’s a bit in the weeds. It has to do with who fills a state court judge’s seat if one comes open between elections. John Dinan breaks it down pretty well.
“Right now, the governor has sole power to fill that vacancy with someone of his choice,” he explains. “The proposal on the table here is to involve a lot of other people, and the key actor would be the legislature.”
Again, if North Carolina voters say Yes to this question, some power will be shifted away from the governor. If they vote No, the current system stays in place.
Right now, you don’t have to show photo identification to vote. That would change if this amendment passes.
People in favor of voter ID measures believe showing one makes the election more secure. Those against it say it disenfranchises low-income and minority residents and suppresses the vote.
For the record, widespread in-person voter fraud simply doesn’t happen these days.
As so often happens in North Carolina, if the measure does pass, Dinan says it will be tested by the courts.
“[Enshrining this in the constitution] would insulate any voter ID law from state court challenges, but there will still be federal court challenges,” he says. “And the last time that North Carolina tried to pass a voter ID law, it was part of a package that was struck down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Be that as it may, you’ll have a chance to give it a thumbs up or thumbs down on the ballot.
A tax cap, not a tax cut
Another ballot question you’ll see this year can be pretty easily misunderstood, and it has to do with taxes.
This amendment would lower the cap on income taxes to 7 percent. Currently, the North Carolina cap is 10 percent.
John Dinan is quick to point out: this is not a tax cut, just a ceiling limiting how high income taxes can go.
“If this passes, this would have no immediate effect on people’s income taxes,” he adds. “The income tax is currently below seven percent by a reasonable amount.”
So, what you’re voting on here is an upper limit on future tax hikes. Again, there’s already a cap in place, but this proposal, if it’s approved, would make it lower.
Hunting and Fishing, And Victim’s Rights
The last two amendments we can group together for an interesting reason. These are: the proposed right to hunt and fish; and the so-called Victim’s Rights amendment, also known as Marsy’s Law.
Now, if these sound very different, they are. One guarantees the right of citizens to hunt and fish. The other one tweaks and tightens some of the rights of victims of crimes.
The reason we can group them together, according to Dinan, is that a lot of states have already taken a look at them.
“These are the classic examples of national movements to amend constitutions, and North Carolina’s part of one of these national movements,” Dinan says. “That is, in the last two decades, 20 states have adopted hunting and fishing amendments to their state constitutions. North Carolina would be the 21st state to do so.”
The same is true for the Victim’s Rights amendments, although far fewer states have adopted those so far.
So, that’s where we’re at with this year’s proposed amendments. It’s a lot to think about.
While political groups have been pushing hard to either “nix all six” or give them all a thumbs up, it’s worth taking a look for yourself to see which, if any, should become part of the highest law in the state.