There are a lot of strange — even downright bizarre — aspects to the ongoing effort by North Carolina Republican legislators to pass a slate of six constitutional amendments during this fall’s election.
There is, for instance, the absurd dearth of process that accompanied the approval of the amendments during the final harried days of the 2018 legislative session. Ideally, constitutional amendments are accompanied by weeks, or even months, of debate, multiple public hearings, lengthy oral testimony and written analyses from academics and other experts, detailed findings from study commissions and extended opportunities for the public at-large and various interest groups to weigh in.
This year, however, few, if any, of those things were present. Instead, legislators rammed through all six proposed amendments during the final week of June. Two of the amendments were then actually rewritten in a single day at the end of August — just a handful of days before the distribution of absentee ballots.
It’s not just the process (or lack thereof) at the legislature, however, that sets this year’s amendment saga apart. There’s also the matter of where the amendments came from, how they were packaged and how they are being marketed to the public.
We know that the “victims rights” amendment is part of a state-by-state, cookie-cutter effort financed by a California billionaire and that the “hunting and fishing” amendment emanates from a cynical national conservative effort to drive rural white voters to the polls. But the rest of the slate appears to have simply emerged from the late night musings and behind-closed-doors machinations of Republican legislative leaders.
And this weirdly opaque situation has only grown weirder and more opaque in recent weeks as Election Day has drawn nearer.
Take the ballot itself. Rather than being numbered or given a letter designation in such a way that would allow voters to keep track of them and get a fix on the ones they want to support and oppose (something that is almost always done with constitutional amendments and ballot propositions in the United States), the amendments simply appear as one big confusing blob at the bottom of the ballot.
And, of course, even if one takes the time to read the language that’s been put on the ballot by state legislators to identify the amendments, it’s clear that voters will be able to glean only the most cursory understanding of what each would actually do.
The actual legislation behind the victims rights amendment for instance, runs to two full and detailed pages. The ballot language, however, merely says the following:
“Constitutional amendment to strengthen protections for victims of crime; to establish certain absolute basic rights for victims; and to ensure the enforcement of these rights.”
There are similarly incomplete ballot explanations for other amendments as well.
But wait, things get even more opaque and confusing when one tries to identify who in the North Carolina policy and advocacy world is really trying to push the amendments through to final passage. Again, we know that the victims rights and hunting and fishing amendments have some deep-pocketed out-of-state support, but with the others — the voter ID, tax cap, judicial vacancies and Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement proposals — there are no readily evident “yes” campaigns or even any easy-to-find repositories of “yes” arguments. It’s as if the amendments are literally the byproduct of a handful of state legislative leaders who simply slapped them on the ballot because they felt like it.
This latter point has been driven home with surprising force in recent days as multiple Republican legislators who previously voted to put it on the ballot (and, more recently, the Koch Brothers-financed conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity), have come forward to oppose the amendment that would take the authority to fill judicial vacancies away from the governor and give it to legislative leaders.
As the Koch group’s release stated:
“The amendment is nothing more than a political power grab that would grant more authority to special interests and politicians, opening the door to partisan court packing while weakening our constitutional right to select our own judges. That is bad for voters and bad for our courts.”
And, of course, this new conservative opposition comes on top of the already extant opposition to both the judicial vacancies amendment and the elections board amendment by former Republican Govs. Jim Martin and Pat McCrory.
The evident support for the two power-grabbing amendments, in particular, is so thin that it’s literally as if N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, and N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (the two main GOP figures behind all six amendments) are attempting to amend the state’s fundamental governing document through a deceptive political magic trick or shell game.
The bottom line: Across the state right now, one senses that the “Nix All Six” campaign is gaining momentum as more and more North Carolinians catch on to the deceptive con game the amendments represent. Let’s hope there’s still adequate time for a majority of voters to wake up to this truth.