Ballot Initiatives on the Voting Block in North Carolina

At first glance, the midterm elections do not appear to concern North Carolina. Neither Governor Roy Cooper nor incumbent senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis appear on the ballot this cycle, so the national media has focused on states holding contested Senate races instead. However, in lieu of statewide candidates, six ballot initiatives feature prominently. To obtain access to the ballot, at least 60% of each chamber of the state legislature had to approve it; seeing as Republicans control supermajorities, these amendments tend to lean more conservatively, and Governor Cooper, a Democrat, opposes all six. Three, in particular, focus on issues indicative not just of North Carolina politics but of the nation overall: an income tax cap, voter identification laws, and judicial appointment.

In the wake of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Trump in December 2017, North Carolina Republicans looked to capitalize on this momentum economically. The income tax amendment would reduce the maximum allowable rate from 10% to 7%. Currently, North Carolina’s rate stands at 5.499% across all incomes, the highest flat tax in the country. While this reform would have no immediate effect, it would hinder any effort to raise taxes eventually, albeit an unlikely proposition considering fiscal conservatives’ hegemony in state government. A reversal would require another amendment to the state constitution, much like the Twenty-First Amendment overrode the Eighteenth. Initially, the state Senate aspired to cap the maximum at 5.5%, thereby ensuring that the present rate could never increase, but the state House of Representatives, seeing such a proposal as too radical and potentially hazardous a shift, refused to comply; thus, the two agreed upon 7% as a compromise. It split the parties cleanly along partisan divides; no House Democrat affirmed it, and only three total Republicans dissented. Moreover, the amendment represents each party’s view regarding the question of proper policy enactment: who can allocate funds more wisely, the government or private citizens? To North Carolina Republicans, the results of 2013’s tax cuts, which slashed the income rate from nearly 8% to its current iteration before finally settling at 5.25% in 2019, speak for themselves: the state has bolstered its economy through the addition of an average of 100,000 new jobs annually, and public services have not suffered drastically. Even at 5.25%, North Carolina would possess the highest flat tax rate in the country, exceeding even those of Democrat-dominated Illinois and “Taxachusetts,” so conservatives see further reductions as entirely feasible. Alternatively, liberals cite the fact that, even in spite of patent economic growth, the state has surrendered potentially $3,000,000,000 annually in available funds. While school systems have not deteriorated, North Carolina continues to languish eductionally, ranking only thirty-sixth in high school graduation rate. Furthermore, the deficit of accessible public transportation has become a running joke to state residents. Finally, in the event that economic growth ceases, the legislature may have to excise entitlements crucial to impoverished people, such as state-provided healthcare, to avoid a bloated debt; in that case, this law would place legislators, unable to raise taxes to ameliorate the situation, in a bind.

While income tax stipulations certainly are a partisan issue, they do not match the rancor surrounding voter identification. Currently, North Carolina imposes the most lax voter verification method possible, as citizens simply walk into a voting location and give their name and address. This amendment would catapult North Carolina to mirror seven other states via the most stringent statute available: photographic ID. If one does not possess a federally recognized card, such as a driver’s’ license, he/she cannot vote. Such a bill disproportionately affects poor, black voters, who overwhelmingly support Democrats, but are less likely to obtain government-authorized identification. Indeed, North Carolina passed an near-identical bill in 2013; however, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled House Bill 589 as an abject, racially motivated violation of the Voting Rights Act. In conjunction with the fiasco of discriminatory congressional districts, also determined by the Fourth Circuit, Republicans have received a reputation of pushing to curtail black voters’ voices. Conservatives counter by highlighting similar laws in other states, including neighboring Virginia. In the event that this amendment does appear before the Fourth Circuit again, Republicans may have more reason for optimism. President Trump has appointed two judges to the Fourth Circuit already and will seek to fill additional vacancies as quickly as possible. With this shift in power, voter identification laws may withstand a trial.

While these federal courts do play some role in North Carolina residents’ lives, state judiciaries have a more direct impact. As such, Senate Republicans are looking to strip Governor Cooper of his ability to appoint qualified judges. The North Carolina Judicial Selection for Midterm Vacancies Amendment would shift the selection of state judges from the executive branch to the legislative. The state assembly would form a commission to choose candidates, use the recommendations of the commission to whittle down to a final two, and then allow the governor to make the final decision. A state court ruled the initial version of this bill unconstitutional in late August, but Republican leadership hustled assiduously to ensure this question reached the ballot. If North Carolinians pass this question, Republicans will obtain a substantial advantage in their fractious relationship with Cooper, as mitigating his power only bolsters the supermajorities. In an unprecedented move, five former North Carolina governors, including the one whom Cooper defeated, Governor Pat McCrory, have signaled their dissent, as they cite the need for separation of powers. Furthermore, McCrory recognizes that Republicans cannot retain a supermajority forever and thus must be willing to cooperate with liberals. Indeed, even in the state assembly, the passage of the amendment was tenuous, as it came within one vote of not clearing the threshold in both the House and Senate, as many Republicans heeded McCrory’s words seriously. This amendment recalls Senator Harry Reid’s (D-NV) 2013 creation of the “nuclear option”, which abolished the filibuster and enabled a simple majority to ramrod judges through the United States Senate. When Republicans regained control, Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) utilized Reid’s own strategy to his advantage; as a result, Republicans have approved two Supreme Court justices during President Trump’s term despite bitter opposition from Democrats. Of all of the ballot questions, this one has the most permanent ramifications, as judges serve for life. Ultimately, each of these amendments could fundamentally reshape North Carolina for years to come, and voters must weigh all possibilities before casting a ballot.

 

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