Court Says North Carolina Constitutional Amendment Questions Are Too Misleading To Be On The Ballot

The proposed measures would strip power from the governor, but the amendment descriptions don't mention that.
A decision blocking two constitutional amendments from appearing on the November ballot in North Carolina is a victory for Gov. Roy Cooper (D).
A decision blocking two constitutional amendments from appearing on the November ballot in North Carolina is a victory for Gov. Roy Cooper (D).
Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

A North Carolina court on Tuesday blocked questions on two state constitutional amendments that would strip power from the state’s governor from appearing on the November ballot, saying the wording of the measures was too misleading.

The 2-1 decision is a victory for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who sued to prevent the amendments, drafted and passed by the GOP-controlled legislature, from appearing on the ballot. One of the measures would strip the governor of the ability to make appointments to the state elections board and give that power to the legislature. The second would limit the governor’s power to fill vacancies on state courts, allowing him to choose only from candidates selected by the legislature.

The court took issue with a provision in the state elections board amendment that said the measure would “clarify the appointment authority of the Legislative and the Judicial Branches.” The judges in the majority noted that the amendment would substantially change the distribution of power between the executive and the judiciary but the ballot language says nothing about how the amendment would change the governor’s power.

The measure, the majority wrote, did not “sufficiently inform the voters and is not stated in such manner to allow them to intelligently express their opinion on it.”

The panel had a similar issue with the amendment dealing with judicial appointments. The ballot question says the amendment would create a “nonpartisan merit-based system that relies on professional qualifications instead of political influence,” but the court said the amendment didn’t require legislators to consider only professional qualifications or prohibit lawmakers from taking politics into account when considering possible judges. The ballot question also failed to describe how the amendment would change the governor’s power, the court said.

The court had ordered that printing of ballots be delayed while the litigation was pending and on Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction, saying the measures should be blocked because Cooper was likely to succeed in the suit.

Republican legislative leaders appealed the decision on Wednesday to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and Cooper requested that the case move directly to the state Supreme Court.

Republicans are reportedly considering a special session to rewrite the amendments.

Lawyers for the legislature argued that it would be improper for a court to step in and determine the language of the amendments that voters will decide on. Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, has floated the possibility of impeaching state Supreme Court justices if they vote to remove the amendments from the ballot.

Republicans have fought to make sure that they control the wording that voters see on the ballot in November. Last month they passed a law blocking a three-person panel controlled by Democrats from writing short summaries of the amendments, out of fear that the descriptions would be used to sway voters.

The court ruled in the same case on Tuesday that two other questions on constitutional amendments — one on a lower income tax cap and one on a photo voter identification requirement — could appear on the ballot.

Two additional amendment questions, dealing with victims’ rights and a right to hunt and fish, are also set to go on the ballot this fall.

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