North Carolina GOP seeks to remake state Constitution; Dems see power grab

North Carolina Republicans are advancing an ambitious package of constitutional amendments that would dramatically overhaul the structure of state government and the way residents vote, enraging state Democrats ahead of an election year in which the GOP fears losing its supermajority status.

In a series of votes this week, the Republican-dominated legislature forwarded six proposed amendments to November’s ballot. Each would need majority approval from voters to pass.

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The amendments include a measure to require voters to show proper identification when casting a ballot; a proposal to cap state income taxes at 5.5 percent; two others that would limit the governor’s ability to make appointments to vacant judicial seats and state elections boards; a measure to codify the right to hunt and fish; and a proposal to expand victim’s rights, known as Marsy’s Law.

Democrats opposed all of the amendments but couldn’t stop them in a legislature where the GOP holds supermajorities of 35 of the Senate’s 50 seats and 75 of the 120 Assembly seats.

Gov. Roy Cooper (D) cannot veto the amendments under the state’s constitution.

The rush to modify the state constitution comes as Republicans face the prospect of a difficult November, suggesting they want to leave their mark now in case the party suffers losses in the fall.

“The potential Democratic wave that appears to be building, and that may cause the loss of supermajority numbers in either or both legislative chambers, has pushed Republican state legislators to try and cement their policies into the state’s constitution,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. 

Republicans thought about adding other issues to the ballot to draw conservative voters to the polls, including a version of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, right-to-work laws and new restrictions on eminent domain.

In the end, they settled on the current list, hoping they will pass by wide margins while bringing out conservative voters. The hunting and fishing measure, the voter identification measure, capping income taxes and Marsy’s Law are all “policy initiatives with broad public support,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party.

Republicans in North Carolina think they might need the ballot measures to bring out their voters given Democratic enthusiasm and the lack of battles for the White House, the governorship or a U.S. Senate seat on the ballot.

Jonathan Kappler, a state political expert who heads the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, said Republicans hope the amendments are “an added incentive for conservative voters, to give them a reason to turn out.”

Democrats say the proposed amendments amount to a last-minute power grab by Republicans scared of November’s midterm elections. Republicans are likely to maintain their majorities in the state legislature, even if Democrats have a banner year, but without a supermajority measures like voter identification laws would be effectively dead in a legislature where Democrats have a seat at the table.

“They’ve got the numbers now, so why not do these things while they can?” Kappler said.

The measures that would take power away from the governor are particularly galling to Democrats, in part because the office is so weak to begin with.

“The North Carolina Republican legislative leaders are doubling down on their attempts to rig the system to preserve their power. There’s nothing that’s good or based in good public policy to justify this flurry of proposed constitutional amendments except election-year politics,” Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, told The Hill. “They're pushing to change our state constitution that fundamentally alters the balance of power of state government going back to the early days of the state of North Carolina.”

North Carolina vests remarkably little power in the governor’s office. It was one of the last states to give the governor the power to veto legislation. In the 1980s, when Republican Jim Martin won the governor’s office, the Democratic-controlled legislature stripped the office of some of its powers. When Republicans won back control of the legislature in the 2010 elections, the governor’s office was so powerless that Gov. Bev Perdue (D) could not even veto political boundaries drawn to favor the GOP.

One of the powers the governor does have is appointing members of local elections boards, which guarantees the governor’s party gets two of three seats. Republicans say the amendment dealing with appointments to elections boards would set up a fairer system in which both parties are represented equally.

Democrats are also concerned that the amendment that would enshrine North Carolina’s oft-debated voter identification law in the state constitution is too light on specifics. The amendment does not specify what types of identification would be acceptable. Democrats fear Republicans would quickly fill that in between November’s elections and when a new legislature takes office next year.

“Instead of allowing the public to vote on a much-needed public school construction bond, legislative Republicans are making them vote on barriers to the ballot box and irresponsible gambits that could jeopardize public school funding that is already lagging,” said Ford Porter, a spokesman for the governor.

Goodwin, the state Democratic Party chairman, said the constitutional amendments would fundamentally alter the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.

“It is their last grasp at trying to institutionalize the Republican philosophy these days,” Goodwin said. “The Republicans talk about being conservative, but when it comes to preserving power, they'd rather trample on the state constitution to do so rather than doing the conservative thing and trying to preserve the institutions that make North Carolina great.”