Like Congress and most modern American state legislatures, the North Carolina General Assembly is not a popular or respected body. Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling asked voters their opinion of the General Assembly earlier this year and the results were fairly dismal. It found that less than one-in-five North Carolina voters (19%) approved of the job the legislature was doing, while more than half (51%) disapproved.
The problem for voters when it comes to putting this kind of anger and dissatisfaction with the legislature into action, however, is that they don’t get to vote for or against the General Assembly as a whole. Instead, voters only get to vote for or against their own members of the House and Senate and, as has long been a common pattern in American politics, voters tend to look more charitably on their own incumbents than they do toward the legislature as a whole. Indeed, this reality undoubtedly has much to do with the dysfunction that grips our modern politics.
Happily, in 2018, North Carolina voters have a rare opportunity to break out of this pattern. Thanks to the hubris and overreaching of legislative leaders during the closing days of this year’s recently adjourned session, voters will get a chance to put their antipathy toward the General Assembly directly into action: they can vote “no” on all six proposed constitutional amendments that will appear on this November’s ballot.
The arguments in favor of a resounding, across-the-board “no” are powerful and plentiful. Topping the list is the disingenuous and misleading way lawmakers crafted the proposals. As Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian explained a few weeks back, five of the six amendments lack basic implementing legislation.
This means, that, quite literally, most voters really have no real way of knowing of what they are voting for with a “yes” vote.
The proposal to require photo identification to vote includes no explanation of what kind of photo ID will be sufficient to meet the requirement and what won’t.
The amendment to “establish a Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and to clarify board appointments” would, by all indications, effect a huge power shift in state government away from the Governor and toward the legislature, but it’s all but impossible to divine that fact from the title’s proposal or even from the language in the amendment that follows – much less how such changes might actually be implemented.
The proposal to establish a system of “merit selection” for filling judicial vacancies (i.e. to take the power away from the Governor and give it to the legislature) is an exercise in such egregiously obfuscated and misleading political doublespeak that it would warm the heart of an old Soviet bureaucrat.
Even the amendments to aid victims of crime and guarantee the right to hunt and fish are hopelessly vague and unclear and sure to give rise to costly litigation and the strong prospect of unintended consequences.
How far, for instance, would a newly consecrated “right” to hunt and fish extend? Would it invalidate county ordinances and regulatory schemes? Will hunters attempt to assert an inviolable right to hunt in state parks?
And how might a new list of rights for crime victims impact the fundamental constitutional rights of criminal defendants to fair trials and due process?
In each of these cases, all voters can do is hazard general guesses and then trust the General Assembly – the same failing body that less than a fifth of voters think is doing a good job – to pass subsequent legislation that may or may not confirm said guesses.
And the proposed amendment to permanently cap the state income tax at 7% fails to disclose that it will inevitably lead to an exacerbation of the already ongoing and destructive shift in state tax policy toward regressive sales and property taxes that disproportionately impact poor and middle class voters.
To put an extremely sour icing on this rotten cake, legislative leaders intend to return to Raleigh in late November – after the election – to pass the missing implementing legislation in question.
In effect, North Carolina lawmakers have turned one of the most sacred and important acts in which any body politic can engage, namely, amending the fundamental, underlying law of the land, into a crass and absurd straw poll in which voters will simply express general sentiments on a list of confusing and ill-defined propositions.
Then, just to add insult to injury, they’ve reserved the right for themselves – many of whom will be defeated or not stand for election in November – to define at a later date what the amendments really mean.
All in all, it’s a corrupt power grab of monumental proportions and nothing would send a more powerful rebuke to the men and women behind it than a massive November defeat for all six amendments.