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Cooper Vetoes Ballot Language Bills OK'd In Special Session

Roy Cooper in Charlotte August 9, 2017
Alexandra Olgin
FILE: Roy Cooper in Charlotte Aug. 9, 2017.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday vetoed legislation approved by Republicans during this week's special session that alters North Carolina ballot language for constitutional referenda and a state Supreme Court race this fall.

Cooper's vetoes of the two bills were expected. His office and legislative Democrats blasted the changes as reversals on previous legislation and ways to hide the content of proposed constitutional amendments and interfere in this year's most important court election.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly vowed veto overrides, perhaps next week. The GOP's veto-proof House and Senate majorities have overridden 18 of Cooper's previous 23 vetoes since he took office in early 2017.

One measure takes away the job of putting titles atop each of the six amendment questions from a Democratic-controlled state panel and gives it to the legislature, which decided to put identical, generic captions on them.

Another measure would prevent a Supreme Court candidate who recently switched his Democratic affiliation to Republican from having any party label next to his name on the ballot. Republicans accuse the candidate, Chris Anglin, of trying to split the GOP vote with incumbent Barbara Jackson and help Democratic challenger Anita Earls win. Democrats already hold a 4-3 majority on the court.

Two of the proposed amendments would further erode Cooper's gubernatorial powers if voters approve them. Another would enshrine the requirement to show photo identification when voting in person in the constitution, in contrast to federal judges striking down a 2013 state law containing voter ID.

"Republican legislators are shamefully attempting to mislead voters in order to undermine our state's constitution and weaken the separation of powers between the branches of government," Cooper said in a release announcing his vetoes.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said the vetoed bills are designed to eliminate the potential for voter confusion this fall. "We will override these vetoes to deliver clear and consistent voter information on ballots this November," the leaders said in a release. The House and Senate scheduled floor sessions Monday, but it wasn't clear if rank-and-file lawmakers would return then.

Republicans decided to wrest from a three-member commission the job of writing amendment titles because they said they couldn't trust panel members Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, to do it impartially. The legislature gave the Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission the responsibility just two years ago.

The GOP's evidence of hijinks appeared to center on title recommendations made by a former legislative staff lawyer. So this week's law simply titles each question as "constitutional amendment."

The judicial bill would leave the affiliation blank for Anglin or any other candidate for judge this fall if the candidate changed voter registration less than 90 days before the candidate filed, in keeping with similar restrictions on candidates for other positions. Although the change could affect a few other local judicial races, Republicans mentioned Anglin prominently in their arguments.

Anglin has rejected the idea that he's a Democratic plant, saying he's running as a "constitutional Republican" to support judicial independence. Democrats have signaled litigation is likely if the party label alteration becomes law.

In his judicial bill veto message to legislators, Cooper wrote: "changing the rules for candidates after the filing has closed is unlawful and wrong, especially when the motive is to rig a contest after it is already underway."