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Power Protected: North Carolina Voters Reject Republicans' Effort to Weaken Governor's Authority

The state's GOP-controlled legislature hoped voters would approve measures to give them more say over judicial and ethics appointments, but both were defeated soundly.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper
Before he was the governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper was his state's attorney general.
For results of the most important ballot measures, click here.

North Carolina legislators have spent the last couple years attempting to strip power from the other branches of government in favor of their own. Their hopes of convincing voters to expand their authority fell far short at the ballot box Tuesday, however.

Two measures on the state ballot would have given the legislature greater authority over appointments. One would have allowed lawmakers to narrow the governor's choices for filling judicial vacancies to as few as two. The other would have taken the power to appoint members to the state ethics and elections board away from the governor entirely, instead allowing legislators to make the picks.

The judicial vacancy measure was turned down by 67 percent of voters, while the elections board measure was defeated with a 62 percent "no" vote.

"If you look back at what's happened in Raleigh in the last couple of years, the state legislature has repeatedly tried to take power away from the governor and exert more control over the courts," says Billy Corriher, a senior researcher with the Institute for Southern Studies, a progressive group in Raleigh.

GOP state Rep. Justin Burr argued that the current system for filling judicial vacancies was "flawed" because it robs residents of a chance to have any input. If the measure had passed, citizens would have been able to nominate judges, who would then have been screened by the legislature.

"Our communities have their local judges forced upon them, often against their wishes," Burr wroterecently. 

Critics of the measure, however, didn't accept the claim from legislators that it actually would have spread power among the branches. Instead, they called it a "power grab," stripping the governor of authority.

That's something the GOP-dominated legislature has been attempting to do in a number of ways since Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was elected two years ago. In a special session in the month following the 2016 election, for instance, the legislature eliminated certain appointment powers of the governor. 

Every living former governor of North Carolina -- two Republicans and three Democrats -- came out against the measures.

"These constitutional amendments would dramatically shift more power to an already dominant legislature," the governors wrote in a joint op-ed last week. "The courts struck down as unconstitutional previous attempts to accomplish such power grabs through legislation, for violating the 'separation of powers' clause of the N.C. Constitution."

In August, a three-judge panel sided with the governor over the proposed ballot measures, ordering earlier versions removed from the ballot. The judges ruled that they were written in a way that was misleading and deceptive to voters. But the legislature had already passed new versions of the referenda.

"While we disagree with the court's opinion, these amendments are far too important not to be on the ballot, which is why we acted immediately to comply with its decision," said Phil Berger, the president pro tempore of the North Carolina Senate. 

Two groups opposing the referenda, Stop Deceptive Amendments and By the People, collectively raised more than $8.5 million in their successful effort to defeat them.

Berger and other legislative leaders continued to defend the measures, but there wasn't a strong campaign push working for their passage.

"There are all these statements from governors and judges against these amendments," Corriher, the researcher, said prior to the election. "Voters will hear that and see this as a power grab."

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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