This article was updated Monday afternoon after House Speaker Tim Moore announced the special session would convene this week.

Seven or eight words will force all 170 members of the North Carolina General Assembly back to Raleigh in the coming days.

Why? One tiny little stone that the state GOP left unturned.

Six state constitutional amendments will go in front of voters this fall, but a little-known state law provides for a committee to write short captions to appear on the ballot to introduce the measures for voting.

These ballot captions are powerful enough that General Assembly leaders have announced a special session to determine how they’re written.

[Longeaf story: 6 N.C. constitutional amendments you will vote on in 2018, ranked]

Here’s everything you need to know about them.

What is a ballot caption exactly?

Here’s what we’re talking about, courtesy of North Carolina State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement counsel Josh Lawson.

Thanks to the NCSBE for this.
Lawson did the highlighting, I did the circling.

That’s prime real estate. You can see why it’s important that this gets worded the right way.

So who gets to write the caption?

Something called the Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, a body created in the 1980s and has never gotten more attention than it is right now. Here’s the law that creates it.

They’re scheduled to meet July 31.

Who’s on this panel?

The secretary of state, state attorney general and legislative services officer.

If you’re a political junkie, you’ll immediately see the problem for the General Assembly here. The first two are currently Democrats — Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein.

There’s already a good deal of pressure to use these captions to try to sway voters one way or the other.

N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. Photo via her office.

How would that happen?

The law requires these captions to accurately reflect what’s in the amendment, but there’s always room for spin.

Former special counsel to the General Assembly Gerry Cohen (a Democrat) put forward his ideas for captions. Here are two of the more controversial ones:

“Transfer Powers of the Governor to the General Assembly” is his suggested caption for something Republicans are calling “Bipartisan Ethics and Elections Enforcement.”

“Limits Governor’s power to fill short-term vacancies as justice and
judge” is the suggestion for what the Assembly is calling the “Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment.”

This certainly isn’t how the General Assembly would spin it.

What happens now?

Republican leadership has called a special session of the General Assembly to tweak the law that set up this ballot caption system. It would only take a simple bill to change either the composition of the commission that writes the ballot captions — or to do away with captions altogether.

“It appears that the Commission may be falling to outside political pressure, contemplating politicizing the title crafting process, including using long sentences or negative language in order to hurt the amendments’ chances of passing,” Rep. David Lewis wrote in a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore.

What’s the ideal result?

Here’s hoping the legislature will use this opportunity to do away with the captions altogether and create a numbering system like most other states use. It’s a lot easier for people to build information campaigns around “Amendment 3” as opposed to some amorphous phrase.

In the meantime, this silly controversy is probably a good thing because it’s getting North Carolina more familiar with what they’re voting on. Need a refresher on the constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall? Here’s our guide.

Early voting starts October 18.


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