By: Andrew Pardue
North Carolina, a notoriously divided swing state, managed to find a surprising degree of political consensus on a variety of proposed changes to the state constitution in the 2018 midterm elections. Voters considered six potential amendments to the state constitution, three of which concerned various aspects of election law. One amendment would require voters to present photo identification in order to vote in-person. A second would change both the composition and the appointment process for the state’s Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. The third would allow the legislature to nominate judicial candidates for vacancies that arise in between elections, and then require the governor to select an appointee from among that pool of candidates.
The photo ID amendment passed with 55.5% of the vote, restoring a regulation that was included in a 2013 law that ultimately failed to take effect after that statute was struck down by the 4th Circuit in 2016. The latter two amendments, which would have given the legislature greater power over what were traditionally gubernatorial appointments, were defeated by 61.6% and 66.9% respectively.
After a decade of contentious partisan battles in court and in the political arena, most observers probably believed that North Carolina voters were hungry for change. That is not what the 2018 amendment votes indicate. What does it teach us that, when given the opportunity to choose for themselves, North Carolinians mostly decided to embrace the election law status quo? First, that despite concern over low voter information North Carolinians were able to draw a distinction between amendments that would alter current practices and those that would not, instead of blindly voting for or against all amendments; and second, that high-profile litigation and political disputes in the state have masked an underlying preference among voters for straightforward methods of exercising control over those tasked with implementing state election laws.
It is rare today to find cross-partisan agreement on controversial issues, so North Carolinians paid attention in August when all five living former governors came together in opposition to two of the proposed amendments. The governors, three Democrats and two Republicans, penned an op-ed in which they argued that the amendments concerning the election board and judicial appointments “would dramatically shift more power to an already dominant legislature” and would undermine the ability of voters to exercise accountability by punishing the governor for making unpopular appointment decisions. Under the proposed system, the ultimate responsibility for any appointment would be diffused among a multimember legislative body—a proposition that voters found intolerable. In a state that still selects its judges through partisan elections, voters value the ability to exercise popular control over their state governing apparatus. Any plan that would obscure those lines of authority—and hence, limit accountability—will likely be defeated.
The success of the photo ID amendment might initially appear to be in tension with the other results, but can be traced to a similar impulse. An Elon University poll in September found that 63% of NC voters supported the amendment, including 72% of white voters and 38% of black voters. The rationale for this support? 65% of respondents reported that they believed the amendment would reduce voter fraud. Most interestingly, 40% of voters in the same poll indicated that they believed the amendment would definitely or probably “prevent legal, eligible voters from casting a ballot,” and an additional 21% were unsure whether it would have such an effect. This means that a substantial number of North Carolinians believed that adoption of the amendment could potentially impact some legal voters, and yet they decided that the implications for election integrity were powerful enough to adopt it anyway.
In their support for photo ID—and in their opposition to the legislature’s attempt to transfer some executive appointment authority to themselves—North Carolinians evinced a desire to exercise greater popular control over their state’s election processes. These decisions reflect a surprising degree of comfort with the status quo in North Carolina election law, and highlight the one goal that North Carolinians prioritize above all others: the desire to always have someone to blame when things go wrong.