Some flickering positive signs for democracy have lit up statehouses in recent months. Thanks to legwork by local activists, a slate of anti-corruption and voting rights reform initiatives have landed on November ballots in states from Michigan to Missouri.
But something darker is underway in North Carolina.
On Monday, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) sued to block two constitutional amendments promoted by the Republican-dominated general assembly. The amendments would strip the governor’s authority to appoint judges, board members, regulators and other key officials and turn that power over to the assembly.
The suit, filed in Wake County Superior Court, asks for a temporary restraining order to keep the amendments off the ballots—which head to the printer on Wednesday. Cooper argues that Republicans are trying to “take a wrecking ball to the separation of powers” and are masking measures that will have far-reaching consequences for state government in vanilla ballot language.
“It’s a legislature gone wild, what we have down here,” Raleigh-based Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson told TPM.
“If you want to put something on the ballot that actually says, ‘We want to take away all this power from the governor, flatten out the separation of powers and checks and balances in this state, and give it all to the legislature,’ put that on,” Jackson said. “What they’re putting on the ballot is purposefully deceptive because they want to hide from voters what they’re actually doing.”
The two amendments are among six in a package that the general assembly approved, mostly on party lines. One would transfer the authority to appoint thousands of commissioners and board members of key committees overseeing utilities, transportation and other critical issues from the governor to the assembly. The other would grant the assembly control of who the governor can consider to fill judicial vacancies.
The amendments’ are written in bureaucratic, dry language. They claim that they will “clarify” the authority of the governor to handle matters that the governor’s office is already constitutionally granted.
The amendment that would turn control over board appointments over to the legislature, for example, is described as a commitment to “establish a bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections to administer ethics and election laws, to clarify the appoint authority of the Legislative and the Judicial Branches.”
Under a 2016 law, a three-person state panel would typically have the task of explaining the true purpose of constitutional amendments in short captions that appear above their language. But Republicans on the assembly were concerned that two Democrats on the panel would cast the measures in a negative light, and passed a bill stripping them of that authority. Cooper vetoed it, but the assembly waited until the Saturday deadline to override his veto. That meant that the governor couldn’t file his lawsuit until Monday, just days before ballots start getting printed for North Carolinians in the military or living overseas.
“Rather than allow the voters to make an intelligent decision whether to restructure their own state government, the General Assembly has adopted false and misleading ballot language that conceals the true — and truly extraordinary — nature of these proposed amendments,” Cooper’s lawsuit states.
Republicans are accusing Cooper of using the courts to try to undermine the will of voters, denying any deceitful tactics.
In a Saturday statement, Rep. David Lewis, Chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, called such claims “ridiculous conspiracy theories” and say the policies in the proposed amendments “are overwhelmingly popular.”
“North Carolina faces a dark day if the courts allow @NC_Governor to prevent the people of North Carolina from voting on THEIR Constitution @NCGOP,” North Carolina GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse chimed in on Twitter on Monday.
Lewis did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment.
The North Carolina GOP’s work to chip away at the governor’s authority and consolidate control in the assembly was well underway by the time a Democrat took office. The general assembly has spent the years since the 2010 GOP wave election in an all-out effort to gerrymander districts, pass strict voter ID laws, limit early voting, and remove executive powers from the governor’s office.
Their gerrymandered congressional maps have since been overruled or ruled as unconstitutional by federal and state courts. They remain mired in legal wrangling.
Weeks before Cooper took office, in December 2016, the assembly called a special session to pass a series of bills stripping the governor of his power, including a law taking away his power to appoint a majority to the state board of elections and a law decreasing the number of state employees he can appoint.
If the two ballot amendments pass in November, the assembly will not only control the state’s purse strings, district maps, and policy priorities. They will also have a remarkable degree of power over who gets to sit on the boards that execute state policies by building roads, enforcing environmental regulations and setting utility rates. Most critically, they will have the authority to select appointees to fill judicial vacancies, allowing them to install justices less likely to rule against their laws and attempted power grabs.
“This makes it very clear that the Republican-controlled legislature understands the political environment they’re in and that they’re going to lose control this fall,” Jackson, the Democratic strategist, told TPM. “This is that last gasp to try to hold onto control in any way they can.”
This post has been updated.