The Republicans who took control of North Carolina’s General Assembly with the elections of 2010 were, it could be said, licking their chops.
They knew that when they came to Raleigh in 2011, a big prize awaited. All they had to do was seize it. And seize it they did.
Because of the timing of the most recent, once-a-decade U.S. census, conducted the previous year, 2011 would be the year in which congressional and legislative voting districts were adjusted to account for population changes. The districts are supposed to be more or less equal in population, so that each person’s vote carries the same weight.
So it would be Republican majorities in the state House and Senate who determined where the new lines would fall.
Anyone who wasn’t born yesterday understands that the redistricting privilege traditionally has been used, and often abused, to help the party in power. Since this was the GOP’s first chance in more than a century to take advantage of the map-drawing process, party chiefs were in no mood to let that chance slip away.
They brought in an expert who had become Republicans’ go-to guy in several states. Using specialized software, he fashioned districts whose boundaries zigged and zagged with mind-boggling complexity. Counties, communities, even individual precincts, were sliced and diced.
Method to the madness
For thousands of voters, their assignment to a given district instead of another must have seemed random and lacking any discernible rationale.
Yet there was a rationale driving the process. Since the goal was for Republican candidates to benefit, thereby strengthening the party’s grip on power, a maximum number of districts would be created that were favorable to them. And a minimum number would favor Democrats.
That would be accomplished by packaging heavily Democratic areas into districts that, in GOP eyes, were being thrown to the wolves. Republicans would feast on the rest.
Six years later, we know the Republican strategy worked. In the legislature it helped the party run up its majorities to the point where if party discipline held, a governor’s veto would never stand.
We also know that by the standards of the U.S. Constitution, the strategy amounted to cheating. How long must we wait for the cheating to stop? How many more retrograde, repressive and reactionary laws must North Carolinians tolerate from a legislature whose very make-up has been deemed invalid by the nation’s highest court?
What the Supreme Court determined, after lawsuits wound their way through the judicial pipeline to Washington, was that the Republican map-drawers in their effort to marginalize Democrats had relied too heavily on voters’ race.
The scheme went beyond targeting Democrats and packing them into a collection of weirdly shaped districts. It targeted perhaps the most reliably Democratic group of voters – African-Americans.
So the color of someone’s skin became a factor in deciding how much influence a person would be allowed to have when he or she cast a vote – and on the whole, black voters lost out.
It was a racial twist on the old gerrymandering scheme – an echo, even, of Jim Crow days. And the Supreme Court agreed it was unconstitutional.
The court’s ruling on the legislative maps came on June 5. It upheld a trial court finding from last August that had flagged 19 of the 120 House districts as racial gerrymanders. In the Senate it was nine out of 50. But in essence, the entire map for each chamber was thrown out, because the problematic districts can’t be fixed without reconfiguring adjacent districts as well.
Their own sweet time?
The question now burning white-hot in the state capital hinges on how to set things straight. Gov. Roy Cooper and his fellow Democrats in the legislature think the answer is obvious: Redraw the maps, pronto, and hold a special election using districts that pass constitutional muster.
Republican leaders…well, they say, they’ll get around to it. Eventually. Meantime, they’re busy trying to make more of their favorite legislative hay while the sun’s still shining.
The three-judge trial court had wanted the gerrymanders to be fixed earlier this year, with special primary and general elections to be held by November. The Supreme Court said it wouldn’t go along with that approach without a more careful analysis of what’s at stake. It told the judges to do that analysis, and on June 9 those judges announced they intended to act “promptly.”
In keeping with the Supreme Court’s instructions, the judges asked parties to the case to address several follow-up questions. One of them amounted to the equivalent of a baseball pitcher’s high hard one fired at the defendants.
Lawyers for both sides were asked to describe “what steps, if any, the State of North Carolina has taken to satisfy its remedial obligations” under the court’s original order handed down on Aug. 15. From outward appearances, the sum of those steps would be approximately zero. Legislative chiefs even went so far as to snub Cooper’s June 7 attempt to convene a special redistricting session, to run concurrently with the regular session now in progress.
The judges of course know perfectly well what legislators are up to. They rounded out their list of questions by asking whether, if their August order essentially has been ignored, the defendants are “entitled to any additional time to comply.”
Just get cracking
Cooper on June 12 put out a statement offering his opinion on the subject. Not surprisingly, he wants to keep the pressure on.
“North Carolina shouldn’t hold another session or have another budget voted on by an unconstitutional legislature,” the governor said. “Maps should be drawn this month and an election held before next year’s legislative session. If the legislature doesn’t do its job soon the courts should.”
Do the Democrats have their own partisan reasons to call for a legislative reset – new districts, accelerated elections, a chance to cut into GOP majorities? Of course they do. This is industrial-strength politics.
At the same time, Cooper and his allies are standing up for the rights of those African-American voters who, because they’ve been concentrated in a few gerrymandered districts or stranded in other districts where their numbers are too small to matter, have seen their influence on the legislature’s overall make-up and therefore on state government policies unfairly diminished.
This is a worthy cause that aligns squarely with the Council of Churches’ long-standing advocacy for minority voting rights and equal opportunity in the political arena. Legislative Republicans and their party have savored the fruits of their racially discriminatory districting schemes for six long years. If it takes another well-considered shove from the courts to get them to make things right, at least they’ll be able to say they’ve had their fun.