The Republican takeover of the North Carolina General Assembly in 2010 brought about monumental changes in economic and social policy. But with a surge of progressive organizing and shifting demographics, Republicans are expected to lose their veto-proof majority in the midterm elections. So, during this year’s legislative short-session, Republican lawmakers made a blatant power grab, producing several constitutional amendments that voters will decide on in November, which seem designed to prevent Democrats from gaining ground.
The session culminated on June 29 with an effort to enact the missing piece of Republicans’ agenda: a restrictive voter ID law. There’s no evidence that requiring an ID in order to vote would prevent fraud, as proponents claim. Out of 4,769,640 votes cast in North Carolina during the 2016 election, only one instance of voter fraud was found. Earlier that year, a federal appeals court struck down 2013 legislation that reformed the state’s election process (including a photo ID requirement) and which targeted and disenfranchised African-Americans, “with almost surgical precision.”
A return to that issue now reveals that entrenching partisan power, rather than crafting sound public policy, is the goal of this General Assembly.
Another constitutional amendment, “protecting the right of the people to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife,” is also headed for the November ballot. With no practical application, its apparent purpose is to drive conservative voter turnout.
Entrenching partisan power, rather than crafting sound public policy, is the goal of this General Assembly.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, denies that the amendments were created to advantage Republicans in the midterms and beyond.
“I think they’re all legitimate governing issues,” Woodhouse told Scalawag. “If people aren’t energized to vote against the president’s party or support the president’s party I don’t think these amendments will change that.”
Recent polling doesn’t bode well for Republicans in North Carolina, and Rob Schofield, director of NC Policy Watch, says that putting a constitutional right to hunt on the ballot is a way to motivate conservatives to go to the polls on election day. “It’s almost as if they’ve been written by a propagandist,” Schofield said of the constitutional amendments. “It’s made to sound like mom and apple pie.”
Four other constitutional amendments will appear on the ballot as well, including a seven percent cap on the state’s income tax rate, which would place more of the tax burden on sales taxes, impacting poor people the most.
Putting a constitutional right to hunt on the ballot is a way to motivate conservatives to go to the polls on election day.
The amendments have queued up a high-stakes election season, but plenty of immediate damage was done throughout the short-session as well. It began with controversy when legislative leaders adopted a budget without deliberation or amendments (unprecedented in modern history) causing retiring representative Mickey Michaux to wonder, “whether I’m in North Carolina or North Korea,” at a press conference in May.
“This bit of parliamentary chicanery is the Republicans’ latest assault on the democratic process,” wrote the editorial board of the Raleigh News & Observer about the budget process. “They’ve undermined voting rights, illegally gerrymandered voting districts, truncated the public hearing process and arrested more than a thousand protesters. Now they want to put a plan on how to spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars into law without giving any lawmaker a chance to propose changes.”
Teachers from across the state marched and rallied at the legislature on May 16, the opening day of the session, and the budget ultimately included modest raises for teachers and state government employees (an average of 6.5 and 2 percent) but continued a trend of disinvestment in public services (arguably the lowest in 40 years).
The budget also continues funding for virtual charter schools and allows cities to spend their own revenue on local schools, enabling wealthy Charlotte suburbs to operate town charter schools. It’s a regressive step towards re-segregating schools in the same county that brought us Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a landmark school desegregation case upholding busing as a remedy.
The budget was just the beginning. Lawmakers used to the session to cut the final Saturday of early voting (popular among Black communities), gerrymander judicial districts in the state’s two most populous counties, and pass legislation that favored landlords at the expense of tenants.
And changes to the North Carolina Farm Act will harm the rights of low-income and minority communities against large pork producing farms near their property––eliminating punitive damages against polluters and effectively negating an individual’s ability to sue for nuisance. Several recent lawsuits have been filed (in one case the jury awarded $50 million in damages) and this legislation could prevent people from recovering damages in the future.
“There’s so much damage and so much lost ground that it’s going to take another decade to just recover.”
“The confined animal feeding industry both in poultry and swine has absolutely changed the way of life for a lot of people in rural Eastern North Carolina,” said Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney at the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights, of industrial sized farms with waste issues affecting local communities. “They’ve got to constantly negotiate with the air. They can’t walk outside and expect to breathe to clean air.”
“These are not city-folks moving out to the country and getting irritated,” added Haddix. “These are people who have a reasonable expectation of what it means to live near farming operations.” One of them is Elsie Herring from Duplin County, where a waste lagoon sits a few hundred yards from her home on property that’s been in her family since 1891; the hog farm opened in 1986 and is owned by Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world and now a subsidiary of the Chinese company WH Group.
Conditions have gotten worse. “You can’t sit outside anymore,” said Herring, a 69-year-old Black woman who is a plaintiff in one of the pending lawsuits against Smithfield, and who can no longer hang washed clothes outside because of waste particles sprayed in the air. “It’s a miserable way to live,” she said. Herring attended a legislative hearing in June concerning changes to the Farm Act and said she worries about being forced off her land when eventually there is no recourse left available for local residents.
Rural North Carolinians––many of them in Duplin County––have powered Republican electoral victories since 2010, but most of those counties continue to lose jobs and population as North Carolina’s recovery from the Great Recession mostly benefits tech and finance industries in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas. It’s an economic shift that has accelerated a divergence into two North Carolinas and intensified fears of North Carolinians on the losing end.
Rural North Carolinians––many of them in Duplin County––have powered Republican electoral victories since 2010, but most of those counties continue to lose jobs and population
“The rural-urban divide continues to get worse and instead of public investment they’ve given them bread and circuses,” said Schofield, referring to legislators who, in recent years, have played off of anxieties about a changing way of life in order to push for a ban on gay marriage and a “bathroom bill” that would have criminalized transgender people––moves that sparked sensational media coverage.
“There’s so much damage and so much lost ground that it’s going to take another decade to just recover,” Schofield said.
Shaking up the power structure in November is a first step. It will require defeating the Voter ID referendum and other constitutional amendments meant to preserve things as they are.