Such realities mirror the enduring struggle to find a constitutional framework that tempers passions yet is also responsive to needed change. This fall North Carolinians will have to determine the outcome of this struggle when they vote on six constitutional amendments. We would do well to give this responsibility the time and attention it deserves.
In addition to casting ballots for local, state and federal candidates, this November North Carolina voters will be asked to vote on six proposed amendments to the state constitution.
Six is the highest number of proposed amendments since the adoption of the North Carolina Constitution of 1971. A quick review of proposed amendments since that time shows it was not unusual to see multiple amendments on the same ballot.
On two separate occasions in the 70s, five amendments appeared on the ballots. In 1982, five amendments appeared on a late June ballot along with two more on the November ballot.
Finally, North Carolina voters were asked to vote on three proposed constitutional amendments three different times between 1986 and 2004.
In total, voters have been asked to approve 45 possible amendments. Of the 45 placed on the ballot, 37 were approved. That works out to a little less than one new amendment per year.
For a bit of perspective, let’s look at how this ratio rank compares to other states.
Professor John Dinan of Wake Forest University is an expert on state constitutions and federalism. At a recent talk on the subject, Dinan said North Carolina ranks in the middle of the 50 states for adopting amendments. On one end is Vermont which adopts a new amendment only once every four years. On the other end is Alabama, which on average adopts eight new amendments per year.
Amendments may be proposed to the state constitution for any number of reasons. Many times, constitutional amendments are the vehicle to get the government to act – or not act.
Likewise, constitutional amendment may provide a way to achieve an end that may not be readily achievable through traditional means. For example, passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2012 was a deliberate attempt to limit the influence of federal courts in defining or redefining marriage.
Some amendments delineate who can run for public office and the terms of service. In 1977, voters said yes to an amendment to allow the governor and lieutenant governor to be elected to two consecutive terms. In 1982, by a better than 3-to-1 margin, voters said no to increasing the term lengths of state senators and representatives.
A quick review of proposed amendments reveals that many of the amendments aim to limit government power and direct how government can spend or borrow money.
Since 1971, eight amendments have been rejected by voters. In five of the eight amendments, voters rejected the idea of providing state or local municipalities the ability to issue bonds, finance capital facilities or to issue bonds without voter approval. In 1977, over 80 percent of North Carolina voters supported a constitutional amendment requiring that the state budget remain balanced at all times. In 1993, 76 percent of North Carolinians voted to reject a constitutional amendment authorizing counties and cities to issue tax incremental bonds without voter approval.
Deciding how government spends taxpayer money is a clear theme among North Carolina constitutional amendments. History suggests that the public wants tight control on state and municipal spending.
Thus, it should not be all that surprising to learn one of the amendments on the ballot this fall reduces the maximum percentage of income tax the state can charge individuals or corporations from 10 percent to 7 percent. The amendment was last changed in 1936 when voters approved raising the maximum income tax from 6 percent to 10 percent. The first income tax amendment was passed in 1920 and limited the percentage of income taxed to 6 percent.
Another noticeable theme in recent amendments is elections, specifically who can vote in elections, the qualifications of specific offices as well as the terms of service. Since 1971, 16 proposed constitutional amendments addressed at least one of these concerns. This fall, voters will be asked whether they should be required to show photo ID to vote.
Constitutions are important documents that define our relationship with government and how we are to live as a people.
They are also imperfect documents aware of their own shortcomings. Since 1787, over 11,000 amendments have been proposed to the US Constitution. Only 27 amendments have been added to the Constitution in 231 years. North Carolina has had three constitutions. The most recent was adopted in 1971. It has been amended 37 times.