North Carolina’s Midterms: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Though neither North Carolina’s governor nor its two senators were up for re-election on November 6, Tuesday’s midterm elections still proved highly-anticipated and fraught. At risk were all 13 of North Carolina’s House of Representatives seats, its state House and state Senate, and six constitutional amendments with a wide array of topics and implications. All things considered, this year’s results were a mixed bag: Democrats cracked the Republican supermajority in the State Assembly, ensuring the possibility of broader bipartisan debate on state legislation; North Carolina’s House of Representatives delegation found advantages in incumbency and, much like the body as a whole, swung less for the Democratic Party than expected; and four of the nebulous constitutional questions, including a problematic and poorly defined voter ID proposal, passed.

North Carolina elected Democrat Roy Cooper to the governorship in 2016, but the state GOP curbed his power whenever possible, using its three-fifths supermajority in both chambers to override vetoes. In May of this year, for example, Republicans used their advantage to block amendments to their proposed budget, forcing Democrats to record simple “yea” or “nay” votes on the $23.9 billion plan in a fast-track process not triggered since the 1970s. GOP leaders stated in their defense that the bill modified only a small portion of appropriations.

The following month, the General Assembly limited litigation rights for citizens living neighboring to hog farms, over Cooper’s veto, maintaining the requisite supermajority even though multiple Republicans broke rank. Days later, it rejected several of the governor’s nominations, including school board appointments which had been pending for more than a year, and declined to justify several of these dismissals.

The North Carolina GOP’s abuse of its supermajority power is evident and wide-ranging. Even if this advantage were legitimately derived, Republicans have shown a willingness to expedite the legislative process so thoroughly that meaningful debate is stifled. NC Democratic Party chairman Wayne Goodwin accurately characterized this meaningful outcome in his statement, upon the toppling of this conservative hegemony, that the newly-elected General Assembly– which still contains a Republican majority – will promote “productive, bipartisan governing” rather than catering to special interests.

Results for the state’s congressional delegation were perhaps less interesting. Twelve of North Carolina’s 13 U.S. representatives will return to serve consecutive terms, and their partisan makeup remains unchanged – three Democrats, ten Republicans. The lone defeated incumbent, Republican Robert Pittenger, lost the District 9 primary to Trump favorite Mark Harris, who, despite inflammatory remarks about Islam, which he called “dangerous” and construed as a threat to Western culture; Judaism; women, for whom he said careers were not the “healthiest pursuit;” and homosexuality, defeated Democratic nominee Dan McCready. Democrats also fought ferociously in the second and 13th districts to unseat Republican incumbents, but their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

North Carolina’s representatives-elect may seem, as a class, to serve a largely conservative state, but on further observation, significant differences exist between the victory margins of Republican and Democratic candidates. Each of the Democrats won at least 70 percent of the vote, while no contested Republican won more than 59 percent. This disparity reveals the effect of Republican-engineered gerrymandering; while a district court ruled North Carolina’s map unconstitutionally favored GOP candidates, it later found that the time remaining before the midterms was insufficient for redistricting without jeopardizing voter turnout.

Considering the impact of conservative gerrymandering on North Carolina’s congressional map, the maintenance of this Republican-heavy congressional delegation is unsurprising. Nonetheless, the election of extremists like Representative-elect Harris is disappointing and represents a step backwards for North Carolina.

Producing perhaps the greatest intrastate turmoil this election season were six constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the State Assembly. Progressives disparaged these referendum votes as a Republican ploy to spur conservative voter turnout, stating that many were superfluous or poorly defined.

Voters rejected the first pair of proposed amendments, which would have transferred appointments power for judgeships and state election board positions from the governor to the legislature. In an impressive display of bipartisan unity, five former governors, both Republican and Democratic, had come forward to criticize the proposals as improperly bolstering the legislature at the expense of the separation of powers.

The other four amendments, however, gained approval. One question did little to alter statutes, guaranteeing citizens’ right to “hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife,”  which protection, critics noted, already exists in the state constitution. Another capped the state income tax at seven percent, a change which has little practical effect, as current taxes hover around 5.5 percent. A third approved amendment strengthened crime victims’ rights by guaranteeing victims’ ability to attend court proceedings, be informed of verdicts, and learn when perpetrators have been released from prison. Some on the left cautioned that GOP leaders might use the vaguely-worded amendment to weaken abortion protections, but little research appears to confirm this. These amendments, while clumsily worded, are likely to have minimal impact on the future of North Carolina.

Finally, voters approved an amendment requiring photo ID to vote in North Carolina elections. North Carolina has a troubled history with voter ID laws: in 2016, an appeals court struck down the state’s statute, passed in 2013, on the grounds that it “target[ed] African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

As the question passed this year did not spell out what specific ID types would be mandated, the General Assembly will hold a special session to make this determination, meaning that the legislature could decide independently of popular will to invalidate, for instance, student and military ID holders from voting. Non-partisan auditing has demonstrated that voter fraud preventable with heightened ID laws occurs with infinitesimal frequency, and it is likely that these restrictions will depress future voter turnout. This voter ID amendment is a blow to North Carolina’s democratic process.

Though neither Senate seats nor governor’s mansions were at stake in North Carolina on November 6, this year’s midterm elections were momentous nonetheless. The state’s progress towards bipartisanship and more nuanced debate bodes well, but its approval of extremism and crackdown on voter ID underscore the work that remains to be done.

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