Yesterday, the General Assembly convened a special session to make changes to the process by which constitutional amendments appear on the ballot. During the 2018 short session, which ended last month, the General Assembly gave approval for 6 constitutional amendments to go before voters in November.
The changes passed yesterday relate to the responsibilities of The North Carolina Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission (CAPC). Before this week’s changes, the commission was responsible for giving each amendment a “caption,” which was essentially a short title. Now each amendment will simply be captioned “constitutional amendment.”
House Rules Chair Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) stated that the change was made due to concerns of bias and outside influence on CAPC.
CAPC was created in 1983 and is comprised of three ex officio state officials, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D), Director of Legislative Services Paul Coble (R) and Attorney General Josh Stein (D).
Prior to yesterday’s changes, the commission had two duties as prescribed by law. The first was to write a summary of each amendment and make it available to the public at least 75 days prior to the election. Summary language is distributed to county board of elections and is available in printed form to all citizens or news outlets. CAPC summaries are for informational purposes but do not appear on the ballot itself.
In 2016, the General Assembly created a second duty for the commission: to add a short caption to each amendment on the ballot. This is the duty that was revoked during yesterday’s short session.
To be clear: CAPC has never played a role in determining the language of the constitutional amendments as they appear on the ballot. The ballot language is now and has always been determined by the General Assembly. The 2016 change would have allowed the commission to contribute a short title for the amendments. Since no constitutional amendments have been considered since that change, CAPC never actually exercised that responsibility.
Previous constitutional amendments have not needed a CAPC-generated caption to be understood by voters. Reasonable arguments exist on both sides as to whether or not a true threat of bias exists. There is no past record to reference, however, since CAPC has never actually captioned amendments on ballots. Either way, the captions will now simply read “constitutional amendment.” This is the most neutral language possible.
House Bill 3, the legislation that bypassed the caption-writing duties of CAPC and replaced it with the generic language, passed the House with a vote of 67-36 along party lines. It passed the Senate with a 27-14 vote, with Democrat Senator Joel Ford (Mecklenburg) voting yes and Republican Senators Wesley Meredith (Cumberland) and Trudy Wade (Guilford) voting no.
The General Assembly also used the special session to consider Senate Bill 3. The legislation makes changes to the qualifications for partisan labeling of judicial candidates on the ballot. Under the new rule, a judicial candidate must be registered with a political party for at least 90 days before the election filing period in order for the party designation to appear beside his or her name on the ballot. If a candidate changed his or her registration less than 90 days before filing, he or she will not be labeled with a party affiliation. The change seems to be motivated by the candidate filings in this year’s State Supreme Court race, in which candidate Chris Anglin filed as a Republican after changing his registration from Democrat only weeks earlier.
Senate Bill 3 also passed the House with a party-line vote. In the Senate, the bill passed with Senator Ford again joining Republicans to support the measure and Republican Senators Meredith, Wade, and Danny Britt (Columbus) opposing the bill.
The bills were sent to Governor Cooper to sign into law or veto. The rules adopted by the House and Senate to govern the special session each included provisions to allow for veto override votes to occur on the same day that a veto message is received from the governor.