North Carolina Republican legislators seem to be a little conflicted when it comes to their opinion of the federal Voting Rights Act. How many of them would disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority and allow the Act to continue to be enforced as Congress intended? It’s a fair bet, not many.
But when it comes to the politically charged task of drawing voting district boundaries, those legislators are quick to raise the Voting Rights Act as justifying what has to rate as a showcase of partisan excess.
They love the Voting Rights Act when it helps them lock down their margins of control in the General Assembly and their superiority in the state’s congressional delegation. They love it even though their redistricting strategy has the effect of minimizing the influence of minority voters – exactly what the venerable act is supposed to guard against.
Now a panel of three state Superior Court judges has signed off on that strategy, as if to collectively shrug their shoulders and ask, “What choice did we have”? Yes, the Voting Rights Act must be honored, they concluded. And it’s hard to argue with that – until we imagine those GOP legislators winking in admiration at their own cleverness.
Do the twist
With judges who can’t or won’t recognize what has happened, the Voting Rights Act is being twisted in application so as to legitimize abuses of the legislature’s district-drawing authority in the quest for partisan advantage.
From the perspective of the Council of Churches, the troubling consequence is not simply that one party is able to tighten its hold on power via manipulation of those district lines – the tactic known down the years as gerrymandering and used by hard-boiled politicians of all stripes.
It is that minority voters – African-Americans and, increasingly, Latinos – are being deprived of a full and fair chance to have their voices at the polls be heard. That risks skewing elections in favor of candidates who don’t feel accountable to those voters.
The implications for state laws and policies are obvious – a greater likelihood of laws and policies giving short shrift to North Carolinians who too often have been among the marginalized. These are North Carolinians whose needs and priorities are of special concern to people who share the Council of Churches’ social justice vision.
The General Assembly switched to Republican control in both the House and Senate in the 2010 elections. That allowed GOP majorities to enact new voting district boundaries in accord with the 2010 decennial census. Convinced that they’d been persecuted by past legislatures in Democratic hands, the Republicans took to their redistricting chore with a vengeance. The maps they drew were used in the 2012 elections, and contributed to significant GOP gains.
Their strategy boiled down to this: Identify areas with high concentrations of Democratic voters. Package them into their own districts. Give Republican candidates in the surrounding areas, from which Democrats have been purged, a nice edge.
Because black voters in recent decades have tended to fall into the Democratic camp, they were among those most likely to be placed in districts where Democratic candidates would be heavy favorites but also to be excluded from a larger number of districts where, without their votes, Democratic candidates would struggle to gain traction.
Civil rights and good government groups went to court. Their lawsuit extended a long line of North Carolina redistricting cases that have been templates for settling Voting Rights Act disputes. And while groups such as the NAACP have argued for the importance of districts in which minority candidates can be expected to do well, they also understandably object to having the Voting Rights Act be turned against their overall interest in electing candidates responsive to their views. In years past, it was the U.S. Justice Department under Republican control and conservative judges that were sticklers for the creation of majority-black districts which also had the effect of boosting GOP candidates elsewhere.
In their ruling handed down on July 8, Superior Court Judges Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County, Alma Hinton of Halifax County and Paul Ridgeway of Wake County (the former a Republican and the latter two Democrats) upheld the current boundaries of both legislative and congressional districts.
Redistricting as it’s now conducted in North Carolina is shot through with partisan politics, the judges observed, and legislators riding the “shifting political winds” are entitled to draw lines with politics in mind. What’s more, the Voting Rights Act requires the creation of minority-majority districts. Add in the fact that, as the judges noted, in this state “racial identification correlates highly with political affiliation,” and Republican legislators in their drive to diminish Democratic influence were given a license to use race as a proxy for party.
And yes, the judges did stipulate that some of the bug-splatter districts drawn in that process are “ugly.” They suggested that whether different alignments would be more appealing to the eye was a subjective matter beyond their purview.
Yet when district lines twist and turn like kudzu atop a septic field, the integrity of the democratic process itself is violated. The connections between candidates and voters, and between officeholders and constituents, are weakened. The sad but familiar refrain applies: Candidates are choosing their voters, not the other way around.
The court’s ruling is likely to be appealed, as it should be – hopefully, to judges who will take a broader view of what the Voting Rights Act is intended to accomplish. Legislators in the meantime would do well to follow through on what has become the bipartisan realization that North Carolina needs a redistricting method less susceptible to abuse by those whom the shifting political winds happen to favor.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate