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Voter ID, three other amendments pass; power shift proposals defeated

November 7, 2018

North Carolina voters have decided to require that people show a photo ID at the polls before they can cast a ballot in future elections.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, an amendment to the state constitution for the voter ID requirement passed by a 56 to 44 percent margin, according to unofficial results. The vote was evenly split after early voting but steadily moved into the “for” column as more results were tallied during the evening.

Voter ID was one of six proposed amendments to the state constitution the Republican-controlled General Assembly put on the ballot this fall in an effort to boost GOP voter turnout. Two controversial proposals to shift appointment powers from the governor to lawmakers went down in flames, while amendments to expand the rights of crime victims, cap state income tax rates and guarantee fishing and hunting in the state passed easily.

“These were excellent proposals that drew strong bipartisan support to improve not only our state constitution, but the lives of millions of North Carolinians,” House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement of the four amendments that passed.

They made no mention of the two that failed.

“By breaking the Republican super-majorities in both chambers of the legislature and by overwhelmingly rejecting the power-grabbing constitutional amendments, North Carolinians sent a strong message to the legislature that they want their state leaders to find more common ground and work better with the governor, Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for Gov. Roy Cooper, said in a statement.

North Carolina has had a roller-coaster history with voter ID. Lawmakers first adopted the requirement in 2013 as part of a package of election reforms. But IDs were checked at the polls during only the 2016 primary election before federal courts rejected most of the provisions of that 2013 law as unconstitutional, saying they were aimed at reducing the number of minority voters.

Supporters insist photo IDs are needed to prevent voter fraud, and they note that IDs are required to get on an airplane, cash a check or perform a number of daily activities.

But critics say claims of voter fraud are overblown. Last year, the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement conducted an audit of nearly 4.8 million votes cast in North Carolina in the 2016 presidential election and found only one case of voter impersonation that would have been prevented by a photo ID requirement.

Lawmakers haven’t yet spelled out what types of IDs would be acceptable at the polls. They have scheduled a special legislative session after Thanksgiving to handle such details, if the amendment passes.

“We will do everything in our power to hold lawmakers accountable and ensure that the final version of this law prevents no eligible voter from casting their ballot,” Karen Anderson, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement. “Whether they are students, seniors, people of color, rural residents or disabled, voters must be allowed to use a broad range of IDs, obtain a free photo ID if they need one and be granted exceptions in reasonable circumstances. It’s time for people across the state to stand up for their fellow North Carolinians and let lawmakers know that any discrimination against eligible voters will not be tolerated.”

Other amendments on the ballot are as follows:

Marsy’s Law passed by a 62 to 38 percent margin, according to unofficial results.

Named for a California murder victim, the proposal would expand the rights of crime victims statewide. Although North Carolina provides crime victims certain rights by law, the amendment would give victims of a wider variety of assaults or felony property crimes the right to be notified of court proceedings and the right to be heard at those hearings. It also would expand those rights for cases involving juvenile defendants. But victims have to request those notifications.

“This amendment does not change the fact that every person who appears in our courts is guaranteed the right to a fair and speedy trial,” Anderson of the ACLU said.

Lowering the cap on the state income tax rate passed 58 to 42 percent.

The constitution now caps the income tax rate at 10 percent, but the amendment would drop that to 7 percent for both individuals and businesses. Current tax rates are nowhere near that level: The corporate tax rate is 3 percent and is scheduled to drop to 2.5 percent next year, while the personal income tax rate is 5.499 percent now and will go to 5.25 percent next year.

Lawmakers had proposed capping the rate at 5.5 percent, but some were concerned that might cause problems for the budget in the event of a major natural disaster or a recession. Even at 7 percent, critics say state finances could be hamstrung in the future.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected an amendment on who appoints members of the state elections board by a 61 to 39 percent margin.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has been a battleground in the power struggle between Republican lawmakers and Cooper, a Democrat, since before Cooper took office. State courts have three times thrown out changes lawmakers made to the board, including who appoints members and who can be chairman.

The amendment basically trumps the court rulings, which said the governor should control appointments to the board to ensure elections laws are properly carried out. Under the proposal, Democratic and Republican leaders in the General Assembly would nominate people to the board, and the governor would have to appoint the people lawmakers picked.

All five living former governors – three Democrats and two Republicans – campaigned against the amendment, calling it a power grab by lawmakers that would upset the balance of power between the three branches of state government. They also blasted the wording of the amendment, which simply calls for creating an eight-member board to oversee ethics and elections laws, calling it deceptive for not informing voters of the underlying power shift.

Likewise, an amendment about filling judicial vacancies failed by a 67 to 33 percent margin.

The courts also have been a point of contention between Cooper and lawmakers, who have in recent years made judicial elections partisan, trimmed the size of the state Court of Appeals and canceled this year’s judicial primaries while they tried to overhaul voting districts for trial court judges.

Like the elections board amendment, this proposal would essentially shift the power to appoint people to vacant seats on the bench from the governor to lawmakers. Here, too, lawmakers would recommend two people to fill a vacancy, and the governor would have to pick one.

The former governors and seven former chief justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court campaigned against this amendment as well on balance of power and transparency grounds. The language on the ballot refers to a merit system for selecting judges, but the only qualifications to be a judge under state law are that the person be a licensed attorney and be younger than 72. Beyond that, lawmakers can pick anyone they want to nominate for a judgeship.

“In our system of government, only the voters can change the North Carolina Constitution,” former Govs. Jim Hunt, Jim Martin, Mike Easley, Bev Perdue and Pat McCrory said in a joint statement Wednesday. “As former governors, our role was simply to inform voters of the impact of the amendments and make certain they understood them. They considered the two appointment changes carefully and came down on the side of preserving checks and balances. Thanks to the voters, our state constitution stays strong.”

A state court removed both the elections board and the judicial vacancies amendments off the ballot in August, saying the wording was too vague. After lawmakers changed the ballot language, the court approved them going before voters this fall.

“The rejection of these two amendments shows that voters strongly believe in our state government’s separation of powers and do not support extreme power grabs by state legislators bent on rigging the system in their favor,” Anderson of the ACLU said.

The conservative group Americans for Prosperity had lobbied for the income tax cap and against the judicial vacancies amendment.

“AFP-NC has long urged voters to support principled policies over politics, and that’s exactly what North Carolinians have done this election,” the group’s state director, Chris McCoy, said in a statement. “The income tax cap will ensure that economic barriers to opportunity remain low and citizens and companies will keep more of their hard-earned money. The judicial vacancy amendment has been called many things by many folks, but we’ve never called it principled policy.”

Finally, an amendment to guarantee the right to fish and hunt passed by a 57 to 43 percent margin.

In addition to protecting people’s basic right to hunt, the amendment also specifies that they have the right to use “traditional methods” to hunt and fish, a term not defined in state code. The amendment also says that hunting and fishing will be “a preferred means” of managing game and wildlife.

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