Votes were postponed on ballot caption and description language for six amendments to the state constitution Tuesday when one of the three-member commission’s members didn’t show up to a scheduled meeting.
The Constitutional Amendments Publications Commission is tasked with creating short captions for the proposed amendments and longer descriptions of what each amendment would do that will also be available to voters. But all three members—N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble—must be in attendance for the commission to take a vote on the language.
Coble skipped the Tuesday morning meeting, stymying the ability of the commission to craft and vote on language for the ballots or descriptions.
The political tug-of-war between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-controlled General Assembly in the last week has complicated the commission’s work.
First, the General Assembly returned in a special session to write its own captions for the ballot, stripping the commission of the ability to do so. Republican leaders said they were afraid the commission would politicize the language.
Cooper vetoed the bill that took away the commission’s ability to write the captions. But legislative leaders, with a GOP supermajority, set up a vote Saturday to override Cooper’s latest vetoes.
Stein and Marshall, both Democrats, suggested Monday’s scheduled meeting of the commission go forward. If the veto is overridden, they said, the legislature’s caption language would move forward – but the commission is still tasked with preparing longer summaries of a paragraph or two that will be available through local boards of election.
In a Monday e-mail to Stein and Marshall, Coble argued the commission should postpone its meeting until August 6, after the veto override vote.
“I make this suggestion in order to avoid further politicizing the work of the commission and to avoid additional controversy,” Coble said. “Therefore, I will not attend any meetings of the Commission this week.”
Marshall replied by encouraging Coble to attend Tuesday’s scheduled meeting and offering to postpone discussion of the ballot captions until after Saturday’s vote. The commission could still proceed with the longer descriptions, she wrote.
When Coble failed to show for the meeting, Stein and Marshall said they were disappointed. They then turned the meeting into a “work session” on the amendment language. Going through each of the amendments, Stein and Marshall shared concern with how they were written, what they would mean for government in North Carolina and whether voters will actually understand the amendments on which they are being asked to vote.
Stein expressed concern about “the incredible disconnect between the words the voters will be voting on on the ballot and what the amendments actually do.”
“What I fear is that the voters are going to go in to get a beautiful birthday cake and see this wonderful picture with all this accurate, beautiful description of what it’s going to taste like…and then when they eat it, it’s cat food and they don’t like the taste it leaves in their mouths,” Stein said.
Of particular concern, both Stein and Marshall said, are the amendments dealing with filling judicial vacancies and an amendment that would give the legislature broad power to appoint members of boards and commissions. Both are politically controversial issues—the latter of which has been the subject of lawsuits between the last two governors and the General Assembly.
The amendment having to do with appointments on boards of commissions seems, at first glance, to deal only with the state board of elections, Marshall said. But when you examine what the amendment would actually do, it is much more expansive.
“My analysis of this is that it basically affects the separation of powers in the constitution of North Carolina,” Marshall said. “And it completely limits the governor in appointing positions that currently are appointable by him.”
“This amendment if enacted would represent the most radical restructuring of our government in 150 years, since the Civil War,” Stein said. “And I agree with you, the primary impact is to completely change the separation of powers. It doesn’t clarify the separation of powers, it changes it.”
“It would essentially give the legislature unfettered power to run the executive branch,” Stein said. “Which takes power away from the voters.”