Not for the first time, let’s recall the quasi-consolation offered by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. as the U.S. Supreme Court declared – in a case involving North Carolina – that extreme partisan gerrymandering is something it lacks the authority to fix.
“Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” Roberts acknowledged back in 2019.
Even if no remedy is to be found in the U.S. Constitution, as the chief and a majority of his colleagues – all Republicans – determined, “Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering,” he wrote. “Nor does our conclusion condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void.”
And he went on to note, with evident approval, that various states “are actively addressing the issue on a number of fronts.” State constitutions can put limits on partisan gerrymandering, Roberts suggested, even if the federal constitution in that regard is seen as toothless.
Four years later, North Carolina finds itself to be the unfortunate poster child showing how empty Roberts’ pat-on-the-shoulder, it’ll-be-okay assurances actually were.
Our General Assembly, in the grip of a Republican majority even more deeply entrenched, has treated itself to a gerrymandering binge that’s déjà vu all over again. And it’s done so with every expectation that our state Supreme Court, now with like-minded Republicans in charge, will find no reason or grounds to interfere. A solid expectation to be sure, since the court already has declared that tilting the election scales through partisan gerrymandering is a legislative prerogative to which judges can’t say boo.
A trio of election maps, covering the state’s congressional delegation plus both chambers of the legislature, is skating through to passage. When it comes to seats in the U.S. House, projections based on the makeup of each district’s voting population show that Republicans are likely to claim at least 10 out of 14 – again, with registered Republican voters collectively trailing Democrats and independents and with statewide elections in recent years closely contested.
Those congressional seats now are divided 7-7 as a result of maps drawn under the state Supreme Court’s auspices after it concluded that partisan gerrymandering had gotten so far out of hand that it violated the state constitution in several respects.
But then the court, as a result of the elections last fall, flipped from a 4-3 Democratic composition to 5-2 Republican. Once the new lineup was in place, that past anti-gerrymandering decision was tossed out like something stinking up the fridge.
A gain of three congressional seats among 435 might not seem like much, but with Republicans’ current control hanging in the balance that boost could have national significance.
Wrong party? Pay the price
Closer to home, configuring districts to yield such a lopsided result is accomplished mainly at the expense of Democratic voters, who are “packed and cracked” to minimize their influence.
Those who are crammed into the few districts that are overwhelming Democratic see their votes devalued because they’re denied a fair chance to weigh in on Republican candidates. And those Democratic-leaning voters who are “cracked” among Republican-heavy districts see their voices drowned out in what amounts to a tyranny of the majority.
Perhaps GOP legislators who called the redistricting shots will say that, well, look at what we didn’t do. A congressional map that was one of two finalists featured for example a contorted 13th District extending from northern Wake County to the Carteret County coast – or to put it in real-world terms, all the way to the Ocracoke-bound ferry landing at Cedar Island.
Maybe it’s the popularity of that ferry among vacationing Wake Countians that would have been cited as meeting the redistricting guideline for keeping so-called communities of interest together…there wasn’t much else!
Of course, if the 13th District – now held by first-term Democratic Rep. Wiley Nickel of Cary but redrawn to favor a Republican – can’t be stretched to the mouth of Pamlico Sound, it can be wrapped around Wake County to cover GOP-leaning suburbs and towns from Sanford to Yanceyville. The trick was to connect the upper and lower halves of that ring near Five County Stadium outside Zebulon with a sliver seeming not much wider than the stadium’s parking lot. That’s the map given final approval in the state House on Oct. 25.
The legislature’s Republican majority has sought to make its redistricting decisions immune from challenge. It recently threw a cloak of secrecy over its internal mapping deliberations. It has helped engineer a state court system controlled by partisan allies. The governor can’t veto redistricting bills.
Yet voting rights advocates are sure to probe for any possible legal weaknesses that might find a receptive audience in the federal courts. Despite the Roberts Court’s refusal – so far — to say how much partisan gerrymandering is too much, the court seems to be taking seriously its constitutional duty to keep the drawing of district lines from becoming tainted by racial discrimination as well. And indeed, since African-American voters on the whole tend to lean Democratic, packing and cracking voters on the basis of race can be a convenient means of punishing voters because of their partisan allegiance.
Large and in charge
While gerrymander-infested voting maps were being crafted behind the scenes over the past weeks, Republican legislators were busy tightening the screws even further as they moved to strengthen their dominance across state government.
The state budget enacted on Sept. 22 is loaded with policy provisions facilitating that legislative power grab. And separate bills, enacted over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, constitute other milestones along the same road. Not surprisingly, they are drawing pushback in the courts.
Senate Bill 747, for instance, unleashes a fog of confusion and complexity on the voting process, aimed at suppressing votes from citizens who might favor Democrats. Among other changes, the rules for so-called one-stop voting, by which someone can register and vote on the same day during the early voting period, are made stricter – not for any particular reason other than Republicans’ political advantage.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, on behalf of three voting rights groups, has filed a lawsuit contending that the new same-day procedures violate the rights of young people who tend to change addresses relatively often. The process for verifying those addresses hinges on postal delivery, and qualified citizens not infrequently are ruled ineligible by mistake.
Republican “election integrity” activists in fact haven’t been shy about their efforts to make it harder for college students, in particular, to vote – integrity, in this context, meaning a system in which voters who might prefer Democrats must jump through onerous hoops.
Meanwhile, Cooper has gone to court to try to block yet another attempt to undermine his authority. Under the law that originated as Senate Bill 749, North Carolina’s long-standing system of election oversight would become the responsibility of people appointed by the legislature, not the governor.
The State Board of Elections, instead of having five gubernatorial appointees and a 3-2 margin for the governor’s political party, would have eight members equally divided between the two major parties. The 100 county election boards would be similarly revamped.
While backers of the change say their aim is bipartisanship, a more predictable result would be tied votes on the board leading to stalemate on issues such as the location of early voting sites and even the certifying of election results. In other words, a gumming up of what has been an orderly and effective system of election administration.
Cooper’s lawsuit, besides highlighting those harmful effects, charges that the new set-up undermines the governor’s constitutional authority to make sure the state’s laws are faithfully carried out, and also that it violates the constitutional mandate that powers of the legislative and executive branches must be kept separate.
From overstepping to trampling underfoot: Those seem to be the tactics our legislative chiefs favor as they look to curb the rights of their political adversaries, including voters who might have the temerity to favor Democrats.
They aim to secure their power with gerrymandered voting districts in which they’re almost guaranteed to win, through bad-faith changes to election rules and by reducing the governor –the state’s top administrator, chosen in a statewide vote – virtually to a figurehead. And from that hoarded power flow policies that leave many citizens struggling against the odds to flourish as fully contributing members of their communities.
It’s in the spirit of caring for our neighbors, both as an ethical mandate and out of our own enlightened self-interest, that groups such as the N.C. Council of Churches stand against these trends. If the ability to vote in fair and well-run elections weren’t so pivotal in that effort, others wouldn’t be trying so hard to restrict it.