N.C. lawmakers return to work on ballot wording

N.C. lawmakers return to work on ballot wording
July 26
08:00 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina legislature called itself into an unscheduled session starting Tuesday, July 24, because some Republican leaders fear a Democratic-controlled panel could add ballot wording for proposed constitutional amendments that dim their chance of passage in November.

At issue are titles to be placed atop each of the six amendments the legislature agreed last month to put before voters this fall. Some of the amendments would shift powers from Cooper to the General Assembly and revive a voter ID law.

State law directs a three-member panel to come up with those “captions.” The panel is comprised of Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Attorney General Josh Stein – both Democrats – and the Legislative Building’s administrator, Republican Paul Coble.

The North Carolina Senate on Tuesday passed a bill to eliminate the requirement of ballot ‘captions’ for the six proposed constitutional amendments scheduled to appear on the ballot this fall.

House Bill 3 eliminates the worry that those captions will not accurately reflect the intent of the ballot questions as written and passed by the General Assembly. Instead of a ballot caption, voters will instead see the simple phrase “Constitutional Amendment” above each ballot question, removing any chance of confusion.

The ballot questions for the six constitutional amendments were established in legislation approved by three-fifths of each chamber of the General Assembly. Those amendments propose to lower the maximum income tax on families and businesses, preserve the right to hunt and fish, strengthen victims’ rights, establish a merit system to fill judicial vacancies, ensure a bipartisan Board of Elections, and establish voter ID.

“This bill quashes attempts by outside influencers to politicize what should have been a simple administrative process and encourage confusing or even misleading captions to try to defeat overwhelmingly popular amendments,” said Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham.) in a statement. “The people of North Carolina are the ones who will make the final decision on these amendments, and this bill ensures they will receive accurate, unbiased information to help them make an informed choice.”

House Speaker Tim Moore and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest – the Senate’s presiding officer – issued a proclamation Monday calling lawmakers back to work starting at midday Tuesday. Republican lawmakers used a procedural tool that requires signatures of three-fifths of House and Senate members to convene their own special session, rather than needing Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to call it.

The panel planned to do its work next week, days before the state elections board needed the titles so they could be placed on ballots going to printers. The commission had asked for public comments on what the captions and related amendment summaries should say.

Moore said fellow Republicans feared the commission might succumb to political pressure and approve titles that put some the proposed amendments in disparaging lights.

GOP leaders, however, have provided no examples of such pressure. Democrats and their allies have blasted the amendments and the possible session since the idea surfaced over the weekend. Republicans are changing the rules to “rig the system” and suit their political needs, state Democratic Party Executive Director Kimberly Reynolds said.

“Instead of allowing an open and transparent process, Republicans are calling a special session to circumvent this board’s work and prevent voters from seeing accurate descriptions of these amendments,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a release

Marshall, who has led the Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission for over 20 years, said in an interview that Republican claims of political pressure placed upon the panel are unfounded, and the GOP’s session is “insulting” to the panel’s work.

Republicans are counting on some of the amendments to bring out conservative voters at a time when they are trying to avoid losing their veto-proof House and Senate majorities.

Moore said he expects lawmakers will approve in one day captions essentially matching the titles of the bills that the legislature approved.

For example, the title of the judicial amendment measure is “Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment.” But Gerry Cohen, a lawyer who worked for decades within the legislature’s nonpartisan staff, recommended to the commission last week that it should title the amendment, “Limits governor’s power to fill short-term vacancies as justice and judge.”

Any legislation would be sent to Cooper. If he vetoes it, the General Assembly would have an opportunity to override.

When lawmakers adjourned their annual work session June 29, Republicans said they had no plans to reconvene until late November.

Gary D. Robertson of The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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