NC constitutional amendments: 5 no’s and a maybe

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Democrats and progressive groups are recommending North Carolina voters say no to all six amendments to the N.C. Constitution on the November ballot. They make a strong case — four of the amendments are bad for the state, and Republicans could have handled the other two differently. Plus, telling voters to take the straight ticket approach and nix all six avoids potential confusion.

We’d rather assess each one individually on its merits. Our recommendations for each of the six amendments:

Filling judicial vacancies

This amendment would strip most of the governor’s power to fill vacant judicial seats by letting the legislature present two choices or more from which the governor must pick. The governor would also be given only 10 days to vet those nominees.

Five former governors and six former Supreme Court justices from both parties oppose this amendment, and with good reason: It’s a power grab by Republicans, and it’s what former Gov. Jim Hunt calls “mischievous brilliance” to put an unconstitutional thing in the state constitution to make it not unconstitutional anymore. Voters should reject it.

Board of Elections Enforcement composition

This amendment eviscerates the governor’s power to appoint people to the state elections board by forcing him to choose from the legislature’s recommendations for a new State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. The elections board, which now has four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated member, would instead have just the four Democrats and four Republicans.

That’s a recipe for gridlock, and it could lead to less oversight on election laws and fewer voting sites if a deadlocked board is unable to resolve county disputes. The five former governors also oppose this amendment. Voters should, too.

Voter ID

This amendment would give the legislature permission to craft a new Voter ID law without having to get the governor’s approval. It’s never a good idea to give lawmakers a free pass on the normal legislative process, and with this issue in particular, Republicans have shown they don’t know how to craft a fair law. Their last effort to do so — a 2013 Voter ID law — was struck down by a federal court that found N.C. Republicans had targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.”

As always, we think Voter ID laws attempt to fix a problem that is exceedingly rare — in-person voter fraud — with a solution that likely would result in hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised voters. Republicans don’t seem to mind the latter. Voters should, and they should reject this amendment.

Income tax cap

This amendment would forbid N.C. lawmakers from raising the state income tax rate to higher than 7 percent. Initially, the proposal would have capped the tax at 5.5 percent, but Republicans worried that it might not pass and was too restrictive should events cause the state to need revenue.

For that same reason, capping the income tax at 7 percent is bad policy. No one knows what the state’s revenue model will look like down the road — or what economic crisis might cause lawmakers to urgently seek tax revenue. Handcuffing those future legislators is unwise. Voters should say no to the amendment.

Victims’ rights

This amendment would expand the state’s current victims’ rights law, including the crimes to which it applies. Those rights include being present at court proceedings of the accused and the right to receive, upon request, notification of release, parole or escape of the accused.

We have no objection to the law or expansion of it, but this amendment isn’t the best way to do so. As lawmakers know, legislation is often imperfect and in need of tweaking, and this amendment is dotted with imprecise language such as victims having the right to be “reasonably heard” at court proceedings. That makes it ripe for challenges or other changes that might not become apparent until tested by real-life circumstances. Such tweaking is significantly harder if a law is enshrined in the state constitution. Voters should send it back to the legislature.

Hunting and Fishing

This amendment preserves the right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife in North Carolina. That’s not something that’s currently in jeopardy, and we have a hard time imagining a threat in the future. The amendment also apparently would not impact any state or local laws.

All of which makes it an unnecessary measure that’s designed to bring Republican-friendly voters to the polls this November (although we doubt that impact, as well.) Still, lawmakers regularly waste time with non-binding resolutions and such designed to make them look good or voters feel good about inconsequential things. If you like the idea of a symbolic hunting and fishing amendment, there’s no apparent harm in voting yes.

You can see all the Observer editorial board’s endorsements in one place here.

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