Opinion: Daily Journal

Amendment critics need to move beyond partisan spin

Critics have devised reasonable arguments against each of the six constitutional amendments on North Carolina’s election ballot. But outlandish claims about the amendments threaten to drown out serious messages that might sway undecided voters.

Consider, for instance, the following quote in the Raleigh News and Observer from Morrisville Mayor T.J. Cawley: “Passing any of these six amendments furthers the partisan divide and makes it even more difficult for our state to make the progress it needs to serve all the people of North Carolina so we can meet our potential.”

Huh?

Increasing protection of hunting and fishing rights would widen the partisan divide? Enshrining more crime victims’ rights into the N.C. Constitution would impede the state’s progress? Shaking up appointments to the state elections board would hurt state government’s ability to serve people?

If Cawley explained the alleged link between the amendments and the sad fate he predicted, the newspaper reporter didn’t notice. Instead the article painted a picture of partisan politics pulling people toward opposite poles.

The N.C. Republican Party has endorsed all six amendments. The Democratic Party opposes all six. Cawley delivered his remarks during a news conference organized in connection with two left-of-center groups: Local Progress and Common Cause. One can guess which side those groups have chosen in the amendment debate.

The mayor’s comments come across more as partisan posturing than a reasoned assessment of the amendments’ impact. And he’s not alone. Legislators themselves have turned up the rhetoric.

“It is really a blatant partisan use of the constitution to draw out a particular voting populace.” That’s the reaction Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, offered the Asheville Citizen-Times to an amendment that would enshrine hunting and fishing rights in the state constitution.

It’s unfortunate for Fisher that the newspaper decided to interview other people. One of them is another member of Buncombe County’s legislative delegation.

“I’m a Democrat. I hunt, I fish, and I have lifetime hunting and fishing licenses,” said Rep. Brian Turner, who voted to place the hunting and fishing amendment on the ballot. “This would get me to come out and vote.”

Fisher’s line about the amendment’s “blatant” partisanship might have surprised Turner and the other 18 House Democrats who supported the measure. The eight Senate Democrats, too.

The partisan argument also plays poorly in the debate about an amendment dealing with crime victims’ rights. Thirty-four House Democrats and a dozen of their Senate counterparts agreed to put that measure on the ballot. Forty-six of the 60 Democrats in the General Assembly voted “yes.” If you’re counting, that’s 77 percent support. This measure would “further the partisan divide”?

Votes for the other four amendments did fall largely along partisan lines, though three Senate Democrats supported a measure to reduce the cap on state income tax rates. Only an amendment to require photo identification at polling places attracted zero votes from Democrats.

No veteran political observer should be shocked to hear overheated arguments from partisans engaged in an electoral fight. It’s more disappointing when media outlets play along.

A popular Triangle public radio program dedicated an episode to the amendment debate. The title: “Constitutional Crisis?”

Crisis? Each amendment appears on the ballot after three-fifths of the members of each legislative chamber approved it. That’s standard procedure. No amendment will take effect without majority support from voters. That’s standard procedure. If voters approve any — or all — of the amendments, state government will continue to operate. As directed by the constitution. That’s standard procedure.

Doom-and-gloom predictions seem to have had little impact on voters. A recent Spectrum News poll found 75 percent support for the amendment targeting crime victims’ rights and 64 percent support for the hunting and fishing proposal.

Even measures with a clearly defined partisan split in the General Assembly tended to do well with surveyed voters. Voter ID (64 percent) and the income tax cap (58 percent) secured clear majorities. The measure changing the state elections board secured 50 percent support, with just 23 percent of surveyed voters registering opposition.

Only the measure affecting judicial appointments appeared headed for trouble, with 35 percent support, 36 percent opposition, and a sizable chunk of undecided voters. (One suspects the 132-word polling question didn’t help. The other amendments required descriptions of no more than 60 words.)

Amendment critics still have opportunities to make persuasive arguments. The numbers suggest they will need more than partisan-fueled complaints.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.