Opinion: Daily Journal

Lack of numbers could impact support for constitutional amendments

State lawmakers grouped six constitutional amendments on the November ballot in a way that limits efforts to distinguish each amendment from the others.

A recent complaint from former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory highlights one potential problem that results for amendment supporters.

Each amendment will appear on the ballot below the simple words “constitutional amendment.” No letter or number follows those words. That’s not an accident or oversight.

State law clearly forbids election officials from attaching a number, letter, or any other distinguishing identifier for the amendments. If voters, pundits, and partisans want to discuss particular amendments, they must refer to some shorthand description of each measure. They can’t just say “Vote for Amendment One! Vote against Amendment Two!”

This observer has no inside scoop on why legislators chose to eschew amendment numbers. One possible explanation is the political calculation that widespread support for some amendments might help push all six over the finishing line.

A ballot measure to reduce the cap on the state’s income tax rate consistently polls well. So does a proposal to require photo identification from voters. Measures to protect crime victims’ rights and the right to hunt and fish also have attracted broad-based support.

Four of the six amendments address those topics. The other two deal more with balance-of-power issues within state government. One would change the way the state fills judicial vacancies. The other would shift power from the governor to the General Assembly for appointments to the state board overseeing elections and ethics enforcement.

Prospects for the two power-shifting amendments do not appear as clear as support for voter ID and a lower income tax cap. Perhaps voters will lump the six amendments together and help secure approval of each one.

That’s one possible scenario.

Or voters could group the six amendments together and reject them. Opponents of one or more amendments have adopted a clear strategy of targeting all of them. They’ve staked out yard signs urging neighbors to “vote against” unspecified amendments. They’ve backed a social media strategy to #NixAllSix.

The lack of a distinguishing number or letter for individual amendments helps the measures’ opponents. If you can’t ask voters to oppose Amendments Two and Five, ask them to reject every one. It’s a simple message.

Opposing amendments en masse also relieves the critics from some political pressure. They don’t have to explain why they think it’s a bad idea to prevent the prospect of a future 90 percent income tax hike. They don’t have to justify North Carolina remaining among the minority of states with no voter identification requirement. They don’t have to say why they think crime victims should not secure a stronger role in the legal system.

Perhaps a good idea will get lost in the shuffle, some critics will say, but that’s a small price to pay to avoid a seriously awful proposal sneaking past voters.

While helping opponents, the absence of a distinguishing number for each constitutional amendment also creates problems for some supporters. This is true especially for those who fervently support some measures while actively opposing others.

Here’s where McCrory’s complaint enters the story.

He and all four other living former N.C. governors have joined forces to oppose the two power-structure amendments. After an opening State Capitol news conference, the five former governors from both major parties pledged to campaign against the two amendments.

But McCrory cried foul when a group called “Stop Deceptive Amendments” aired a television commercial referencing the former governors. In the ad, a narrator suggested that each governor called for a “no” vote on “the constitutional amendments Raleigh lawmakers put on the ballot this fall.”

McCrory argued that this language suggested he opposes all six amendments. He supports four of the six.

The “Stop Deceptive Amendments” group revised the ad, but only after its spokesman claimed in a news report that the original message was “accurate” and “clearly referencing” the amendments that united McCrory with his four fellow former chief executives.

Accurate? Perhaps. Clear? Certainly not.

But that’s thanks in no small part to the General Assembly’s decision not to distinguish amendments by separate numbers.

We’ll have to wait until November to learn whether voters decide to lump the amendments together — either to support or reject them. Only then can we judge the ultimate wisdom of the General Assembly’s decision to bind all six proposals so closely together.

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