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Elections, judge vacancies, crime victims amendments advance

June 26, 2018 - 6:22 am

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Republicans in one General Assembly chamber backed late Monday putting several proposed constitutional amendments on North Carolina ballots in November, including those to require photo identification to vote and to change how judicial vacancies are filled.

The legislature finalized a referendum on one question, as both the House and Senate agreed to submit to voters a measure that would enshrine in the state constitution the right to fish, hunt and harvest wildlife through trapping. And the two chambers are close to asking voters whether to expand the rights of crime victims. The Senate voted for a version that's different from the House edition approved a year ago.

Before this year's session adjourns this week, the GOP-dominated legislature wants to put as many as six amendments on the fall ballot in what's expected to be highly-contested elections.

The amendments could boost turnout among Republican voters during a campaign where Gov. Roy Cooper and other Democrats are energized to try to eliminate the GOP's veto-proof majorities.

Proposed amendments must receive support from 72 House members and 30 senators to get on the ballot. Republican numbers in the chamber exceed both thresholds. A governor's veto stamp can't be used to block constitutional amendments.

House members debated passionately for more than two hours before giving initial approval to the voter ID measure on a party-line vote of 74-44. The measure, which still needs another affirmative House vote before moving to the Senate, would mandate voters seeking to vote in person ``to present photo identification before voting.'' The amendment says legislators would have power to approve exceptions.

Legislators revisited arguments from 2013 when the GOP approved a wide-ranging election law that required photo identification, reduced early in-person voting from 17 to 10 days and barred same-day registration from the early voting period. But a federal appeals court panel struck down these and other provisions in 2016 as racially discriminatory, saying lawmakers had targeted ``African Americans with almost surgical precision'' because the alterations disproportionately harmed black voters.

GOP legislators say the federal judges got it wrong and believe a constitutional amendment puts the idea on stronger legal footing if it's approved and they implement details afterward. Republican speakers contended people are voting multiple times, citing personal anecdotes, and that putting the requirement in the constitution will build public confidence in elections.

``Voter fraud exists and we all know it. And if you don't know it then you have not been paying attention,'' said Rep. Michael Speciale, a Craven County Republican, adding a referendum would let the public evaluate whether more safeguards are needed.

Several Democrats said the measure would hurt the same voters as the 2013 law did, particularly the poor and others on society's fringes. The photo ID requirement was used during the 2016 primaries before the courts stepped in that July.

Voting is often ``the only source of power that a citizen of this state has,'' said Rep. Terry Garrison, a Vance County Democrat who is black.

Democratic Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham County, the legislature's current longest-serving member and a longtime civil rights activist, told Republicans ``it's just a shame that you try to hold onto the power that you were given by trying to participate in voter suppression.''

The House and Senate approved the hunting and fishing amendment by larger bipartisan margins, as backers of the measure say it will preserve long-held traditions and pre-empt any efforts to erode these outdoor pastimes and sources for food.

The latest version of the crime victims' amendment known as ``Marsy's Law,'' would guarantee victims the right to attend more court proceedings and provide them a legal avenue when rights aren't getting met.

The Senate also voted 34-13 Monday for an amendment that would shift authority over deciding appointments for judicial vacancies away from the governor. The amendment would create nonpartisan judicial merit commissions that would evaluate nominees. The legislature would then recommend at least two nominees to the governor from which to choose.

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