The North Carolina legislature returned briefly to business Tuesday so Republicans could wrest the seemingly ordinary work of adding titles to proposed constitutional amendments on November ballots out of the hands of a state panel controlled by Democrats.
But GOP legislators, who called themselves back for a special session, also decided to intervene in this fall's only state Supreme Court race, where a candidate's late party-switch appeared to hurt the GOP incumbent's chances to win. Democrats blasted the interference in both matters while tens of thousands of tax dollars were spent to hold the session.
Gov. Roy Cooper could soon veto the two pieces of legislation the General Assembly approved by late Tuesday, accentuating high stakes in an election year despite its lack of marquee statewide races.
Republicans are seeking to dampen the Democrats' energized efforts to end the GOP's veto-proof majorities in the legislature. Six constitutional amendments could boost conservative voter turnout in November, and some amendments, if approved, would erode some of Cooper's powers and enshrine a voter ID mandate in the North Carolina Constitution. Democrats also are aiming to extend their recently-obtained 4-3 majority on the state's highest court, which sometimes rules on the legality of General Assembly action.
The Republicans reconvened less than four weeks after the General Assembly wrapped up this year's work session because they said they couldn't trust Democratic elected officials on a panel to affix impartial short titles to each of the amendments.
It's a turnaround from just 2016, when Republicans passed a law entrusting the three-member amendments commission to create such captions that briefly explain referendum questions. The commission is now comprised of Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, and the Legislative Building's top administrator, Republican Paul Coble.
One finalized bill would remove that power from the commission and simply attach a header to each amendment with a vanilla title of "constitutional amendment," followed by the content of each question the legislature agreed to in June.
"What we tried to do with this is simply provide a nonpolitical caption," said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and chief bill sponsor. "I mean, you can't get any more nonpolitical or plain than just saying a 'constitutional amendment.' That's all this bill does."
But Democrats and their allies said Republican arguments were charades designed to try to block public input on the titles sought by the commission and to hide what the amendments would actually do by taking over the title of creating the "captions." The commission, led by Marshall more than 20 years, has proven it can do the job with integrity, said Rep. Deb Butler, a New Hanover County Democrat.
"This sort of circumvention of process undermines the public's confidence in government, and I for one find it truly shameful," Butler said before the House approved the title measure 67-36. The Senate later approved the measure 27-14.
The other Republican bill given final approval late Tuesday by similar margins addresses the situation of Supreme Court candidate Chris Anglin, who was a registered Democrat until becoming a Republican just a few weeks before filing to run in June. He joined GOP Associate Justice Barbara Jackson and Democrat Anita Earls on the ballot for Jackson's seat.
All judicial candidates will have their party affiliations or unaffiliated status on the ballot during a year in which lawmakers decided there would be no judicial primaries. Jackson and Anglin could splinter the GOP vote, opening the door for Earls to win. Anglin has rejected GOP accusations that he changed his affiliation to help Earls, saying he's running as a "constitutional Republican."
The Senate measure would leave Anglin's or any other candidate's affiliation blank if the candidate changed voter registration less than 90 days before the candidate filed. Republicans said the change could affect a few other races, but some mentioned Anglin prominently.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown of Onslow County said the bill would put in place the 90-day deadline for party affiliation changes required of other candidates. Democrats expected what they labeled a retroactive measure to be challenged in court.
In a statement, Anglin accused Republicans of again "changing the rules in the middle of the game. They will stop at nothing to hand pick their judge and undermine our democratic process ... I've just begun the fight."