Updated: May 10
The proposed amendment that would change the rules for who appoints North Carolina judges when vacancies occur between elections started as a 101-word sentence with two semicolons. The Flesch Reading Ease formula gave it a score of -52.3 and termed it impossible to comprehend.
Faced with the herculean task of trying to decipher it, it’s easy to see why voters would toss a coin or just give up. That’s one way citizens can be robbed of any real say in how their government operates.
Incomprehensible amendments are only one difficulty for voters. It’s been a year of lawsuits and chaos surrounding every aspect of voting as the Republican-controlled General Assembly spent much of its time defending gerrymandered districts, trying to strip power from the executive and judicial branches and trying to make voting more challenging.
The most recent installment in this ongoing outrage occurred in late August when three federal judges, for the second time, ruled Congressional maps drawn by state lawmakers an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander that favors Republicans. But even the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, groups that sued to have the maps overturned, agree it’s too late to redraw them before the November election.
That decision came right after a federal court ruled the wording of two constitutional amendments, including the one mentioned above, was so misleading that they could not appear on the ballot. However, the court allowed GOP lawmakers to rewrite the amendments. In a hastily called special session the General Assembly scaled back one and barely changed other. They did this just days before the deadline for printing absentee ballots.
The two were among six constitutional amendments GOP lawmakers placed on the ballot in June during the last week of the 2018 session with virtually no debate or public input. Two, including the judicial vacancies one, are blatant power grabs that would undermine the executive and judiciary. Two fix problems that don’t exist. Two should be addressed by legislation after all their implications are thoroughly debated.
None should be amendments to the state’s constitution. All five of the state’s living governors, two Republicans and three Democrats, jointly condemned the two amendments that would have stripped from governors and given to the legislature the power to appoint members to hundreds of boards and commissions and to appoint judges and justices to vacant seats.
There are outliers, but most citizens want a government that is efficient, free of corruption and supportive of business. One that stays out of people’s private lives so long as they do not harm others. And one that keeps tax rates as low as is compatible with the functions government must perform, such as providing public education, ensuring public safety, building a safe and adequate infrastructure, protecting the environment that sustains us and providing a safety net for those who cannot care for themselves.
To some, it may seem that business friendly government and some of those objectives are mutually exclusive, but quite the opposite is true. An educated workforce, a dependable infrastructure, a clean environment and a culture of compassion are all objectives that support a healthy and enviable marketplace. But keeping government efficient and business friendly while meeting those objectives requires an ongoing balancing act, one that demands a collaborative approach with many competing interests at the table.
Imperfect as it is, the fact that ours is the richest and most successful nation in the world is testament to its success in achieving that balance. One person, one vote. A fair playing field where all interests have a chance to be heard. An attempt to find compromise that takes them all into account. These principles were built into our system of checks and balances. But these principles are at risk in North Carolina.
The Republican-controlled legislature has tried everything its members could collectively think of in recent years to take power from voters and from the judicial and executive branches and gather it to themselves. The confusion that has generated as the midterm election approaches is a powerful incentive for voters to throw up their hands and stay home on Election Day.
But if voters tolerate such behavior, we risk putting far too much power in the hands of far too few and losing the principles and the balance that supports our freedom and economic strength. There are resources to help us learn about candidates and ballot initiatives before the election. One is ballotpedia.org, a non-profit, non-partisan encyclopedia of American politics and elections. Another is the state Board of elections website ncsbe.gov. This may be the most important state election in a generation. It’s a critical time for voters to claim their power.