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Colin Campbell: Battle over amendments may affect NC election


Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

RALEIGH — The last-minute legal tussle between Gov. Roy Cooper and the legislature over proposed constitutional amendments has begun to affect the voting process for this year’s election.

Last week, a three-judge panel delayed the printing of ballots until Sept. 1 — a move that likely means absentee ballots won’t be ready on Sept. 7 as currently scheduled. Voters seeking to cast their ballots by mail will have less time to get it done.

The ballots could be delayed for about two weeks before the state would violate federal absentee voting rules. This situation could have been easily avoided, and both sides share in the blame.

Cooper shouldn’t have waited five weeks to file his lawsuit against the two proposed amendments that shift the governor’s appointment powers to the legislature. He’s arguing that the ballot language misleads voters, but that language was approved on June 28. The lawsuit wasn’t filed until Aug. 6.

By waiting until shortly before ballots were supposed to be finalized, Cooper limited judges’ options to remedy the situation. If this legal battle took place in July, the legislature would have time to rewrite the ballot questions under a court order.

That might not be an option if the ruling arrives immediately before voting must begin. And while Cooper’s attorneys argue they aren’t challenging the amendments themselves, their proposed remedy is to prevent voters from deciding on the proposals.

Cooper is correct that the ballot questions are designed to make uninformed voters assume the proposed changes are minor and noncontroversial. There’s no mention of the governor’s powers being shifted to the legislature.

Still, voters deserve an opportunity to referee this fight over which branch of government should be more powerful. Cooper and the Republican legislature have been in a power struggle since he was elected, and the issue needs to be settled so our state leaders can focus on problems that actually affect the average North Carolinian.

As long as voters understand the amendments, Cooper is likely to keep his powers. A Spectrum News/SurveyUSA poll released in May gave Cooper a 49 percent approval rating, while the legislature’s approval rating was just 32 percent — well below President Donald Trump’s approval rating.

In an ideal world, the legislature would have written accurate ballot questions and Cooper wouldn’t have sued. But we live in a state where power-hungry politicians want to vanquish their foes by any means necessary.

So instead of directing resources towards state government problems like DMV lines, prison security and drinking water contamination, both Cooper and legislative leaders are paying expensive legal teams (their in-house attorneys with six-figure salaries apparently aren’t good enough).

The matter will soon end up at the N.C. Supreme Court, where Democrats hold a narrow majority. Hopefully, we’ll get a speedy ruling that allows voting to begin without further delay.

But in this hyper-partisan atmosphere, the battle might not end there. On Friday, N.C. Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse said a ruling in favor of Cooper would create a “constitutional crisis.” He even hinted that legislators could try to impeach Supreme Court justices, although he stressed that he has “had no discussions with any legislative members about this issue.”

Impeaching the Supreme Court over an unfavorable ruling would definitely create a constitutional crisis — and could be political suicide for legislative Republicans in November. It might seem unlikely, but the West Virginia legislature recently impeached their Supreme Court (although under much different circumstances).

One would hope cooler heads will prevail, but that’s never a guarantee in state politics.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.



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