This November, lawsuits permitting, North Carolinians will vote in referendums on six constitutional amendments. The issues they will address are crime victims’ rights, a right to hunt and fish, the method for filling vacancies on the states’ courts, the establishment of a bipartisan elections commission, a cap on the income tax rate, and voter identification.
Republicans argue they constitute meaningful and much needed changes. Democrats counter the proposed amendments are political stunts, constructed to increase Republican turnout in a midterm year with an unpopular GOP president. The party is afraid it might lose its supermajorities in the General Assembly, perhaps even control of one or both chambers.
Democrats build much of their claim around popular analyses of the 2004 presidential election. Many believe same-sex marriage referendums in 11 states ginned up the Republican vote enough to secure George W. Bush’s narrow victory. A ban passed in all of them, and in most turnout increased markedly from 2000. If referendums on certain issues can get Republicans to the polls in a presidential year, they should be particularly useful for the North Carolina GOP in 2018 — particularly since the state has no gubernatorial or U.S. Senate contest, either.
I’m not so sure. The evidence referendums increase turnout is hardly compelling. North Carolina had its own referendum on same-sex marriage in May 2012. Titled “Amendment One,” it was placed on the primary ballot, launched with ballyhoo, and subject to an intense campaign. Ultimately, 35 percent of voters showed up, about par for recent presidential primaries and below midterm general elections. The authors’ goal was clearly passage, and they relied on a competitive Republican presidential primary to get people to the polls.
Are these the best issues to motive the Republican base and help Republican legislative candidates in an otherwise sleepy election? Even contentious matters with presumed asymmetric partisan effects on turnout, like same-sex marriage in 2004, sometimes have unpredictable results. Compared with his national performance, Bush’s proportion of the vote in two key battlegrounds of Michigan and Ohio that held referendums dropped from 2000.
Although politicians and activists are agitated over the issues of the election commission and judicial vacancies, voters are not and surely never will be. The victims’ rights question seems better suited to a period of increased crime. The income-tax cap and voter identification look promising. Polling by the Civitas Institute shows North Carolinians support both propositions by healthy margins. But referendums on these questions elsewhere don’t suggest Republicans will necessarily benefit. Coloradans passed the Taxpayers Bill of Rights amendment in 1992, but turnout didn’t increase more than the national rate, and George H.W. Bush lost the state, having won it four years previously. Minnesota rejected voter ID in November 2012. Polls taken only weeks earlier had it passing handsomely, but Democrats and other opponents campaigned energetically to ensure its defeat.
Voter ID and the tax cap are therefore perhaps as likely to motivate North Carolinians to get to the polls and vote Democrat as Republican. Voter ID, particularly, has become a “red meat” issue for many on the left, cast as it is in racial terms. The court cases and Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes might help Democrats more than expected. These spats over procedure have fostered indignation and could bring to the polls angry voters accusing Republicans of manipulating the democratic process.
What’s more, people need to know about the referendums. Will there be enough money to advertise effectively? The parties will concentrate on the General Assembly and Congress. With many close races, including two increasingly competitive U.S. House contests in our state, outside groups will feel pressured to invest in candidates, not ballot questions. Money will be set aside only for referendums where the outcome is uncertain, suggesting a proposal is of interest to potential Democrat and Republican voters alike.
And the six referendums will compete with another, North Carolinians’ verdict on President Trump at the halfway point of his term. Midterm elections are inevitably assessments of presidential performance, even at the level of state legislature, and given the polarized views of the current occupant of the White House, 2018 will be no exception. Providing Trump a vote of confidence is likely to motivate many Republicans — particularly blue-collar whites who do not customarily vote in the off year — more than any state constitutional amendment will.
The hunting and fishing measure might be the most effective at pushing Republican turnout. It should appeal disproportionately to conservative rural voters. But they live in districts where incumbent GOP legislators enjoy electoral security. I think the Democrats are wrong about Republican motives. Perhaps Republicans have the wrong motives. Either way, these proposals look like some of the last items on a GOP wish list to me. The party is anticipating a period of greater competition when it will be playing a little more defense.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at the N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.