Well, that was quick. We’d barely had time to reckon with all the bullying packed into the new state budget approved on Sept. 22 when the N.C. General Assembly’s Republican majority pivoted to what could be its favorite sport – redrawing election districts.
What makes that arcane process so much fun? It’s when the politicians in charge get to see how clever they can be in devising districts that let them feast on bounties of votes while forcing their opponents to scrounge for crumbs.
That amplifies the voices of Republican voters and, at the same time, essentially tells those who prefer Democrats to put a sock in it. Democratic vote totals collectively might match or even outnumber totals for GOP candidates, but that scarcely makes a difference.
The legislature is going through the motions of collecting public input for its redistricting decisions, with hearings by a joint House-Senate committee held Sept. 25-27 in Elizabeth City, Hickory, and Raleigh. If recent experience is a guide, no matter how earnestly voting rights and good-government advocates plead for fairness and transparency – and those pleas have come in loud and clear –we could well end up with maps for congressional and legislative districts drawn with an eye toward the maximum advantage Republicans believe they can wangle.
In other words, maps gerrymandered six ways from Sunday.
Last time around, after the 2021 redistricting that followed the 2020 census, the N.C. Supreme Court hit the brakes. In February of 2022, it declared that extreme gerrymandering meant to help one party at the expense of another violated rights guaranteed by the state constitution.
As a result, North Carolina’s seats in Congress and the state House and Senate in 2022 were contested in districts that the high court had ordered to be reconfigured to meet its fairness standard. The congressional delegation ended up evenly divided, with seven Republicans and seven Democrats.
But that was before the court, formerly with a Democratic majority, flipped to a 5-2 Republican margin. The new controlling bloc wasted zero time in scrapping the earlier ruling, thus letting legislative Republicans have the do-over they’re now enjoying.
So long as those legislators can avoid drawing districts that discriminate against certain voters on the basis of race, which the federal courts have prohibited, they’re likely to have relatively smooth sailing in the face of legal challenges.
As for discrimination on the basis of party affiliation, the U.S. Supreme Court had turned any regulation of such partisan gerrymandering over to the states – which in North Carolina’s case, turned out to be an empty gesture when the Republican majority on the state’s high court decided that intervention wasn’t warranted after all.
The anti-gerrymandering challenge that temporarily was upheld by the Democratic-controlled Supreme Court resulted in a January 2022 trial in which much evidence came to light of Republicans’ strategy and methods.
That evidence was obtained in part due to a requirement that once a redistricting scheme was approved, certain information about how the plan had come together was supposed to be accessible to the public.
It proved to be telling that the House redistricting chair – despite all the Republicans’ solemn vows of transparency and public involvement – acknowledged using “concept maps” drawn in secret to help guide the final product. Which, not so coincidentally, resulted in a congressional map projected as leading to a 10-4 edge in Republican seats even though the parties’ respective vote totals were likely to be closely divided.
That brings us back to the newly inked, nearly three-months-overdue, 625-page budget. As a plan to spend $29.8 billion during the fiscal year that began July 1, the budget has many shortcomings – its failure to devote needed resources to the public schools chief among them.
More than that, the budget shows legislative Republicans going to extraordinary, even shocking lengths to drain power from the governor’s office and to shield themselves from public scrutiny and accountability.
Throughout the array of boards and commissions that oversee much of state government’s day-to-day work, appointments are stripped from the governor’s control, hamstringing his effectiveness in his assigned role as the state’s chief executive. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s generally robust open records law, which already gives the legislature much leeway, essentially will go out the window when it comes to legislators’ work.
One key budget provision (found on page 530) specifies that “A legislator, while in office or after leaving office, shall not be required to reveal or to consent to reveal any document, supporting document, drafting request, or information request made or received by that legislator while a legislator.” Imagine, for example, the flow of communications between legislators and favor-seeking special interests that would be impossible to penetrate.
Current and former legislators also are designated as custodians of all documents and other such material and requests that they make or receive while in office. And another provision, on page 531, stipulates that “the custodian of any General Assembly record shall determine, in the custodian’s discretion, whether a record is a public record and whether to turn over to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, or retain, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of, such records.” In other words, if legislators want to send their records permanently down the memory hole, then there’s no stopping them.
Remember the rule that opened some aspects of the legislature’s work on redistricting to the public once a new set of maps was approved? The one that had allowed House Redistricting Chair Destin Hall’s use of “concept maps” to be uncovered (although those maps themselves had perhaps not so coincidentally disappeared)?
That rule was found in Chapter 120 of the General Statutes, Section 133. The new budget’s Section 27.7.(d), tucked into page 530, likely would foreclose a repeat of Hall’s embarrassment. It simply declares, “G.S. 120-133 is repealed.”
It’s to be celebrated that with passage of the budget, North Carolina’s Medicaid program finally is due to expand, providing health coverage to some 600,000 low-wage adults, typically among the working poor.
Yet by tying Medicaid expansion – a top priority of Gov. Roy Cooper and other Democrats – to the budget, Republicans gave themselves leverage to force acceptance of all manner of sketchy provisions, such as the legislative clampdown on public information, that under different circumstances likely would have drawn Cooper’s veto. The governor accordingly will let the budget become law without his signature.
Voting districts need to be more or less equal in population, in keeping with the bedrock constitutional principle of one person, one vote. They should be reasonably compact and should aim to respect county and municipal boundaries so that communities can have unified representation.
But beyond those basic criteria, it’s crucial that voters not be sorted in ways that magnify some voices while muzzling others. That kind of manipulation has become the stock in trade of redistricting specialists who use sophisticated software to elevate gerrymandering to a nefarious science. Politicians who want to stack the deck with friendly voters have all the tools they need. North Carolina now is ill-equipped to stop them as the legislature shrinks from accountability while exercising raw power.
The stifling of public information about legislative activities, redistricting included, is at the heart of that abuse. And legislators shrug off well-earned criticism, sometimes using excuses so lame that one almost has to laugh.
Republican Sen. Brent Jackson of Sampson County, a top budget writer in his chamber, put it this way, as quoted by The News & Observer of Raleigh: “The lawmakers aren’t hiding anything more than they have in the past.” That ignores the likely effect of provisions in the budget he helped prepare. And besides, does he really think it’s supposed to make us feel better?