Vote no on constitutional amendments


Sunday, October 28, 2018

In politics, if you’re trying to pass something controversial, one of the oldest tricks in the book is to pair it with something less controversial and present them together as a package. Another trick to gain passage is to flood the zone — overwhelm the audience with more things than the controversial thing you want approved.

Republican lawmakers in Raleigh employed both tricks when they decided to put not one, not two, or even three constitutional amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot, loading it down instead with what’s got to be a modern-day record of six voter referendums.      

For voters who haven’t yet been to the polls for early voting, here’s a recap of what Republican lawmakers are asking you to decide in next month’s election: 

* Whether North Carolina residents should have a constitutional right to hunt, fish and “harvest wildlife.”

* Whether victims of felony crimes deserve extra rights in court proceedings that involve them.

* Whether voters should have to present a photo ID for in-person voting. 

* Whether the maximum possible state income tax rate should be lowered from 10 percent to 7 percent.

* Whether the process for filling judicial vacancies should be changed from having the governor make those decisions to having a “commission” appointed by all three branches of state government appoint nominees, at least two of whom the legislature will recommend to the governor, who then will be required to pick one of them.

* Whether the State Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement should be reduced from nine to eight members, and whether the Legislature, instead of the governor, should be given the power to choose the board’s members.

It’s clear GOP lawmakers care deeply about passage of the last four amendments, and only added the first two to increase the chances of that happening. One theory for the additions is that conservative voters who hunt and fish and believe criminals have more rights than victims, will be spurred to turn out and vote in greater numbers to counteract an expected surge in Democratic turnout for this election. Republican lawmakers may also be hoping voters won’t study each of the amendments in detail, but instead, seeing the two innocuous-looking ones with the other four, will vote for all six.

We have concerns about all six amendments, including the two supposedly innocuous ones. Will a right to “harvest wildlife” mean, for example, that no new state environmental laws can be passed to regulate the pollution from hog operations? Also, will arming felony victims with new involvement rights mean fewer plea bargains and more costly trials? Neither of these amendments is necessary and approving them likely will create more problems than they’ll purportedly solve. Our biggest concerns, however, are with the four amendments GOP lawmakers really want. 

The voter ID amendment would enshrine in the state constitution what GOP lawmakers couldn’t do through legislation — establish a modern-day poll tax for voting. Photo IDs require background documents — documents a sizable number of minorities lack and would have to pay to obtain. Republicans’ goal in passing the amendment is the same one a federal court has already said is discriminatory: to reduce voting by minorities and other groups who don’t cast ballots for them. Voters should rebuff this naked effort at voter suppression.

Reducing the cap on the state income tax from 10 percent to 7 percent may sound reasonable but it really isn’t. No one who votes for the amendment will see their taxes go down. That’s because the state’s current tax rate is 5.25 percent. The danger in lowering the cap to 7 percent is that it ignores the possibility of future calamity. When one happens — it’s a matter of when, not if — the lower cap will handcuff state lawmakers’ response. It’s just not good government to put too low a ceiling on the revenue government may need in a crisis.

Republicans say the judicial vacancy amendment is needed because the current process for appointing judges is corrupt. They say the governor appoints only political cronies to the bench. What they don’t say is that passing the amendment won’t change that: cronies will still wind up with judgeships, only it’ll be lawmakers handing them out. The danger of that, as eloquently pointed out by attorney Tony Hornthal in a recent op-ed, is that it upends a pretty sound principle of good government: Those who make the laws shouldn’t appoint those ruling on the legitimacy of those laws. It is, as Hornthal said, the legislative equivalent of having foxes guard the hen house. 

The amendment altering the makeup of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement is also nothing more than a partisan power grab. Republicans believe control of the board that sets voting hours and sites is too important to leave in the hands of the governor, who could be (and is now) a Democrat. That’s why the amendment reduces the board’s membership from nine to eight and allows lawmakers to pick the members. But even if lawmakers were to choose an elections board that was bipartisan — there is no language in the amendment requiring that — a panel with four Republicans and four Democrats would be a recipe for chaos. It would constantly deadlock over the smallest of issues so that nothing election-related — approval of early voting plans, holding politicians accountable for unethical conduct — would ever get done. It’s no wonder that good-government groups and the state’s last five governors oppose the amendment.