President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was perfectly Machiavellian in his advocacy for using crises to advance long-term policy goals:
You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.
We just witnessed an attempt in Washington to follow Emanuel’s advice by turning coronavirus relief legislation into a “partisan Christmas” by adding unrelated or tangentially related items.
There is little doubt that we will see more of that, both in Washington and in Raleigh. In fact, it has already begun. The North Carolina Democratic Party is calling for the legalization of ballot harvesting, the very thing that led to the results of the 2018 9th District election being overturned and McCrae Dowless being arrested last year. That is not just hyperbole on my part; a call for legalized ballot harvesting is literally spelled out in the wish list they sent to the North Carolina State Board of Elections on March 26:
Allow persons other than near relatives and legal guardians to assist voters with requesting, completing, and returning ballots.
The SBE came out with its own set of proposals that partially overlap with the Democrat’s wish list (but, thankfully, has no call for legalized ballot harvesting). As with most such lists, there are some items on it that should be implemented and others that should not be.
Good policymaking also accounts for various situations that alter the calculations and trade-offs that policies offer. Clearly, some policies (like some of those the SBE has proposed) may make sense during this temporary crisis but will not when things back to normal. Trying to figure out now which policy changes should be permanent, and which should be temporary will add an additional element of uncertainty to the process. Also, trying to make permanent policy changes during this crisis would also raise the political stakes involved, making partisan acrimony more likely at a time when the General Assembly should be working for bipartisan solutions.
To remove uncertainty, reduce levels of partisan acrimony, and spare North Carolina citizens from the potential long-term harmful effects of legislation passed under the shadow of coronavirus, any legislation the General Assembly passes related to the SBE request should include sunset clauses.
A good date for such a sunset clause would be four weeks after the start of the General Assembly’s long session next year. That would give the legislature time to consider which, if any, election law changes implemented this year should be made permanent.
We should not allow this crisis to be used as an excuse to pass permanent policy changes that we would not have otherwise let pass.