North Carolina Democrats’ Potential Pyrrhic Victory
Polls suggest Democrats will win some seats in the General Assembly this November. That’s well established by now. Also seemingly certain is that pundits will debate until Election Day just how many seats the GOP will forfeit, whether the Democrats can break the supermajority, and the height of the Blue Wave. No matter this discourse, Democrats have good reason to feel confident about how the party will perform in November.
But they’re forgetting an important part of the ballot that doesn’t involve elected officials at all.
On voting day, North Carolinians will have the opportunity to vote on six constitutional amendments introduced by Republicans in the General Assembly. Voters will receive only a simple, single-sentence description of what each measure entails. A battle has already ensued over the wording of the amendment descriptions on the ballot, with judges ruling earlier this month that two of the amendments contained phrasing misleading to voters.
And while this decision lent a small victory to the Democrats, there’s still evidence that the battle over the amendments’ wording is not over just yet. An Elon University poll released earlier this month found that support for two of the amendments decreased when participants were given further explanation beyond the one sentence description that will appear on the ballot: “The Elon Poll found that for these two amendments — one requiring a photo ID to vote and the other changing the state income tax rate cap — voters were less supportive of the two measures after they had read the more detailed explanation of the amendments, information that will not be provided to them on the ballot,” the study said.
With regards to the “Income Tax” amendment, voters will be presented with the following description: “FOR/AGAINST Constitutional amendment to reduce the income tax rate in North Carolina to a maximum allowable rate of seven percent (7%)." The poll found that with this wording, 56 percent of voters said they support the amendment, 15 percent said they were against it and 30 percent said they were not sure.
Following the initial polling, participants were presented with the official explanation of the amendment as drafted by the N.C. Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission. The one-sentence explanation left out some pertinent information about the amendment, such as the notable fact that “[the] proposed amendment does not reduce your current taxes.”
The amendment is designed to only place a cap on income tax increases, and no individual in North Carolina will experience any reduction in the amount paid in state income taxes. Currently, the individual state income tax rate sits at 5.499 percent and the corporate income rate at 3 percent. Both rates will be cut again in January 2019, by .25 and .5 percent, respectively, regardless of whether the amendment passes or not.
Once the participants read the expanded version of the proposal, 45 percent were in favor of the income tax cap, a decline of 11 percentage points from the initial 56 percent, 27 percent were against it and 28 percent said they did not know. The “Voter ID” amendment saw a similar decline in support, from an initial 63 percent to 59 percent with the expanded description. All of this is to say that for at least two amendments, support dropped when voters had access to more information about the proposals.
Republicans have a clear incumbent advantage in the drafting of these amendments, and seem to still benefit from their presentation on the ballot. Regardless of whether the scantilty defined ballot questions were designed to misrepresent the intent of the amendments, a lack of easily accessible information about the amendments will certainly benefit the Republicans who drafted them. A recent High Point University poll found only 17 percent of North Carolinians have heard “a lot” about the proposed amendments, compared to 47 percent who said they had heard “a little” and 30 percent who had heard “nothing at all.” The same HPU poll found that all six amendments held plurality support among participants when presented with the wording that will appear on the ballot, with five of the six holding more than 50 percent support.
Although the state Democratic party has been focused on helping legislative candidates prepare for November, it has received some help in attacking the amendments from outside sources. Five ex-governors, three Democrats and two Republicans, have already denounced two of the amendments; one that would create a judicial nominee commission under the authority of the legislature and another that would remove the governor’s ability to make appointments to the state board of elections. Additionally, the state NAACP, ACLU, and other organizations are organizing a campaign against all six amendments which they characterized as “deceptive and dangerous.”
And while the lip-service condemnation of the amendments from the Democratic Party may energize some voters, they will need a more robust, informational campaign to highlight the shortcomings of the ballot questions that will be presented on November 6th. Supporters of various amendments have already begun such offensives, including a $5 million campaign from "Marsy's Law for North Carolina,” supporters of the so-called “Victim’s Rights” amendment.
The intent in including seemingly inconsequential proposals, such as the amendment to “protect the right to hunt and fish,” on the ballot is naturally part of the Republicans’ larger culture war strategy. The GOP’s end goal is to render Democrats’ vehement opposition toward the amendment itself analogous in voters’ eyes to the party wanting to ban hunting and fishing. Of course, this amendment in particular seems meaningless, but energized conservative voters will be ready to vote in favor of all six with enough direction from Republicans in the General Assembly. If Democrats want to keep these proposals out of the state constitution, they will need to seriously attack the judicial nominations and elections board appointments amendments, and not let impressionable voters be fooled by meaningless “victims rights” and “hunting and fishing” proposals. The two amendments present real dangers to nature of politics in North Carolina by giving an already powerful state legislature more authority and taking it away from one of the weakest executive offices in the country.
While Democrats have their own reasons to be excited about November, they must not underestimate the enthusiasm of reliably conservative voters or run the risk of losing the constitutional battle. Doing so will surely put a damper on any November 7th celebrations across the state.