The minority party enjoys few advantages in North Carolina’s General Assembly. Among them? Members of that party can occupy the ethical high ground when those in power engage in shenanigans.
But partisan fervor can dilute that advantage.
Last week’s special legislative session offered two examples of minority-party Democrats stumbling in their attempts to portray themselves as reasonable, fair-minded alternatives to their Republican counterparts.
Lawmakers returned to Raleigh on July 24 and approved two measures. House Bill 3 changes the way in which proposed constitutional amendments will be identified on the November election ballot. Senate Bill 3 blocks a judicial candidate from identifying himself with a political party if he joined that party within 90 days of filing for office.
Both bills cleared the General Assembly in a single day. Outgoing Sen. Joel Ford of Mecklenburg County was the only Democrat to vote for either measure. Otherwise, Republicans “owned” the legislation, along with the process of calling the special legislative session in the first place.
Regardless of the merits of either bill, Democrats had legitimate reasons to raise objections. They could — and did — complain about the special session’s timing. They complained about the lack of prior notice for the two bills. They complained about the speed with which both bills scooted through the House and Senate.
Turning to the substance of the two election-related measures, Democrats lambasted Republicans for rewriting election rules in the middle of an election cycle.
Advocates of open, transparent government could find at least some basis to support each of these complaints.
But through acts of commission and omission, Democrats blunted their efforts to present a clear distinction from their GOP counterparts. Rather than defenders of good government, leading Democrats came across at times as partisans seeking an edge in the November election. Just like their colleagues across the political divide.
H.B. 3 essentially eliminated a process North Carolina never had used before to create short election ballot captions describing constitutional amendments. A 2016 state law assigned that job to an outside three-member commission of two Democrats and one Republican. This is the first year the new law would have come into play.
Rather than risk the chance that the commission’s Democrats would vote to adopt misleading captions for this year’s six amendments, the General Assembly scrapped captions entirely. Instead each amendment will have the same simple identification: “constitutional amendment.” Along with those words, voters will see the actual text of amendments as approved by three-fifths majorities of the state House and Senate.
In arguing against the change, no legislative Democrat admitted the clear evidence that some party insiders were bandying about proposed captions that resembled Democratic talking points.
For example, here’s one proposed caption for an amendment that would adjust the makeup of the state elections and ethics board and clarify government appointments: “Transfer Powers of the Governor to the General Assembly.”
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s lawyer couldn’t have written it any better.
Speaking of Cooper, the governor’s team launched a fundraising scheme based on H.B. 3. “Republicans in the legislature voted to put a bunch of harmful and unnecessary constitutional amendments on the November ballot,” according to an email from the Cooper campaign to potential donors. “They know that many of their amendments are unpopular, so they just called themselves back for a special session to write misleading ballot language to deceive voters.”
If Cooper believes the amendments to be “harmful and unnecessary,” Republicans can build a strong case that Cooper’s fellow partisans would be unable to write accurate, neutral captions. And while a claim about “misleading ballot language” designed to “deceive voters” might prompt a Democrat to send Cooper $10, it’s hard to square that campaign rhetoric with the facts.
Each amendment will be identified as “constitutional amendment.” Misleading ballot language? Deceptive? Hardly.
What could have been a simple, justifiable argument against changing rules in the middle of an election looks more like standard-issue partisan jawboning.
Partisan considerations also influenced debate over S.B. 3. Though it applies to any 2018 judicial election, the legislation’s highest-profile target is a state Supreme Court race. Republican Justice Barbara Jackson wants to keep her seat in November. Democrat Anita Earls wants to take it away. The two major parties have lined up behind those respective candidates.
But because of quirks in this year’s election process, attributable to Republican legislators’ earlier efforts, a third name appears on the ballot. Longtime Democrat Chris Anglin changed his voter registration to Republican in June. He filed for the Supreme Court race on the last possible day. He has since hired well-known Democratic political operative Perry Woods to help him wage his campaign.
It’s clear to any fair-minded observer that — regardless of Anglin’s original intent — elements within the Democratic Party have latched onto Anglin’s candidacy as a tool to help blunt Jackson’s vote among Republican voters. Their ultimate goal is to help ensure Earls’ victory.
S.B. 3 would allow Anglin to drop out of the race or to run without a party label. He would lose the “R” designation after his name since he changed his voter registration less than a month before filing to run.
Republican legislators arguing in favor of the change point to the unusual nature of this year’s judicial elections. Republican voters had no primary election to help them choose between Jackson and Anglin, lawmakers say. Candidates in nonjudicial races already faced restrictions on flipping partisan affiliations just before an election.
Democrats responded — correctly — that Republicans created the “Anglin problem” themselves. Republican legislators canceled this year’s judicial primaries. They permitted no other process for the major parties to identify the candidate of their choice on the ballot.
Legislative Democrats also have legitimate reasons to scold their GOP colleagues for rewriting rules after the candidate list had been set. Acting roughly 105 days before the election, the General Assembly clearly rewrote election rules in the middle of the process.
Yet no leading Democrat has stepped forward to disparage the chicanery on his side of the political aisle. References to Anglin have feigned ignorance about partisan political factors motivating either the candidate or his backers.
It would have been easy for a legislator to distance himself from the Anglin team’s questionable conduct. “Whatever Mr. Anglin intended, neither the Democratic Party nor Democratic operatives should be working with him to help boost Anita Earls’ candidacy,” the mythical Democratic lawmaker could have said. “That type of partisan gamesmanship is uncalled for. I understand why my colleagues across the political aisle would be angry. I understand their urge to take action.”
Then the Democrat could have returned to the scolding. “Frankly, my Republican friends, you made this mess, and now you’re going to have to live with it. Candidates filed for office based on rules you created. They are now waging campaigns based on those rules. This is no time to change the rules, regardless of the impact on a particular election.”
You want your plea to uphold the rule of law to sound more credible? Distance yourself from facts on the ground that suggest a naked partisan ploy to take advantage of the law.
By failing to acknowledge partisan scheming on their own side, Democrats sacrifice at least some claim to the ethical high ground. Thus it’s unclear whether the latest legislative shenanigans will offer the minority party much benefit.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.