Last month, a federal court issued a temporary injunction against North Carolina’s new voter ID law, which was passed in accordance with a 2018 constitutional amendment approved by voters. Although the referendum did not establish a specific voter ID, Republicans have repeatedly pointed to it as an example of popular support.
The voter ID referendum was one of six on the statewide ballot that year, all of which were topics of heated debate for the entire 2018 election cycle, with Republicans urging people to vote for them all and Democrats urging voters to “nix all six amendments”. In the end, voters resoundingly approved four of them while equally resoundingly rejecting two of them – a rarity in North Carolina, a state that hasn’t rejected a ballot initiative since 1993.
What were these proposals and why did they fail or pass? I’ll explain all six below, in order from the most votes for to the most votes against.
Strengthening Victims Rights
Commonly referred to as “Marsy’s Law”, this initiative passed with a staggering 62.1% of the vote. First enacted by referendum in California in 2008 and by many more states since, Marsy’s Law is a national effort to provide greater rights for the victims of crime. These new rights include things like notification of court proceedings and the release or escape of convicts, as well as the right be present at relevant court proceedings. Led with an advertising campaign featuring actor Kelsey Grammer (whose father and sister were both murdered) as well as other crime victims, the proposal managed to achieve widespread support across the state despite opposition from the ACLU and the state Democratic Party. Marsy’s Law won by solid margins in urban Democratic strongholds like Guilford and Mecklenburg while pulling above 60% – a truly remarkable feat – in the Democratic-leaning counties of Cumberland, Pitt, and Wilson. Equally impressive, it managed to pull over 30% of the vote in the state’s Democratic bastions of Durham and Orange.
Maximum Income Tax Rate of 7.0%
Passing with a solid 57.4% of the vote, this referendum capped the state’s income tax at a maximum of 7% – the previous high was 10%. This did not change the current income tax of 5.499%, but instead limited how much it could be raised to in the future by the legislature. The amendment was supported by fiscal conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and opposed by Democratic-leaning education organizations, who wanted flexibility for future spending increases. It managed to easily pass thanks to strong support across ideological lines in rural, suburban, and urban areas. The ancestral fiscal conservatism of Mecklenburg County showed as it passed there with 53.1% of the vote, but Wake County’s resolute no vote of 55.4% shows just how far Republicans have fallen there. One more interesting note here: Jackson County, a Republican-leaning county home to Western Carolina University, perplexingly voted no by an incredibly small margin of only four votes.
Protect the Right to Hunt and Fish
Perhaps the most straightforward of the amendments, this one created a constitutional right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife and passed with 57.1% of the vote. Supported by the National Rifle Association, the bill generally received the most opposition from environmentalist groups. Democrats and even some Republicans expressed a general ambivalence towards the measure due to the lack of any active threats to hunting and fishing rights; it was widely seen as an effort by Republicans to turn out rural voters, although it did attract some bipartisan support in the legislature. Unsurprisingly, this amendment performed the strongest in the state’s more rural areas, with the measure hitting over 80% in several counties and even winning over several majority-black rural Democratic counties like Edgecombe, Bertie, and Hertford.
Require Photo ID to Vote
North Carolina’s long national nightmare over voter ID finally was sent to the voters, with interest groups lining up mostly along party lines to either support or oppose it. This measure would merely put in the state constitution the mandate for photo ID, but left the exact details to the legislature to enact. To the disappointment of Democrats, who pushed hard against it, the amendment passed with a solid 55%, even winning over a few majority-minority counties like Hoke and Robeson, but this is the map that most resembles traditional party lines in the state; the most swingy of the blue counties in the state, Wilson and Pitt, voted for it, and it nearly won in urban Forsyth County, but Mecklenburg and Wake were well out of reach.
Bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections
This initiative, along with the next one, was one of two attempts by the Republican legislature to transfer powers away from Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. North Carolina’s governor is already one of the weakest in the country, and this measure was notably opposed by every living former Governor in the state. Despite support from the state Republican Party, this measure was rejected with 61.6% of the vote. What’s more fascinating here are the counties that actually did vote for the bill – there’s no real pattern. Some (like Cherokee, Clay, Rutherford, Curritusk, and Camden) are Republican strongholds, but the most ancestrally Republican bastions like Avery, Davidson, Mitchell, and Randolph rejected it. Bizarrely, the measure passed in both Scotland and Robeson counties, traditional Democratic strongholds; I can find no real rhyme or reason for their support for this initiative.
Nonpartisan Judicial Merit Commission
The most rejected of all the initiatives, this one would have moved the authority to fill judicial vacancies from the governor to a new “Nonpartisan Judicial Merit Commission”, appointed by the legislature, governor, and the chief justice of the state supreme court. This commission would choose a list of candidate and the legislature would trim that down to two choices, with the governor deciding between them. Widely seen as an attempt to pack the courts, this measure was doomed from the start and received little backing outside of the legislature. Voters would ultimately put it out of its misery, rejecting it with 66.9% of the vote. Once again, there’s little rhyme or reason to the counties that backed it, with most Republican counties rejecting it with over 60% of the vote – only a scattering of counties in the far east and west of the state supported it.
Despite demands from both parties for straight votes for or against all six measures, voters instead split their votes in fascinating ways, rejecting only the two power grab measures while giving landslide wins to the rest. Despite the strong year for Democrats statewide, the success of these amendments gave Republicans a strong victory to point to – and with voter ID, it gave them the popular support they long claimed to have.
Additionally, despite both parties in North Carolina liking to play extreme partisan politics, these initiatives showed a more amenable public willing to consider each referendum on its merits. Whether or not this pragmatism will be represented at the ballot box and in future candidates remains to be seen.