Americans this first week of January are recalling how close to the brink of disaster our nation’s democratic system came one year ago, when a violent mob seeking to keep Donald Trump in office despite his election loss to Joe Biden invaded the U.S. Capitol.
Whether that assault was the capstone of a desperate strategy pursued by Trump to continue as president, and how that strategy was put in play, is what the special House committee appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi now is investigating. Whatever the findings of that probe, the country now understands that the peaceful transfer of power which has been a pillar of our civic faith no longer can be taken for granted. The evil genie of authoritarianism is on the loose.
One way to try to smash the principle of government of, by and for the people is, well, to smash your way into the halls of Congress. That the Jan. 6 insurrection failed was a close call, due to the bravery of law enforcement officers as well as elected leaders who found the strength to do their duty.
Other anti-democratic schemes now being pursued don’t involve murderous mayhem. But their effects over time can be insidious to the point where a power-hungry faction insulates itself from accountability to the voters.
In various pivotal states across the country, Republicans aligned with Trump work to ensure that they can overturn adverse election results, in keeping with the Big Lie claim that his 2020 defeat was the result of Democratic fraud. To the degree those efforts succeed, the upshot will be a dissipation of public trust that elections are fairly conducted. For a democracy that’s potentially a mortal blow.
North Carolina’s Republican legislators have moved with mixed success to cut back on voting opportunities for those likely to support Democrats. Yet while their maneuvering is subject to the veto pen of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, the rules allow no veto to interfere with the GOP’s shaping of voting district boundaries as they try to cement their hold on power.
Lines of influence
The lawsuits spotlighted in a state court trial this week target the latest chapter in a decade-long Republican effort to configure voting districts in their favor.
Beginning with the redistricting process that followed the 2010 census – a process mandated under the Constitution to make sure that districts are roughly equal in size and therefore that each vote carries more or less equal weight – the Republican-controlled General Assembly has sought to help GOP candidates by constructing districts where their success is virtually guaranteed.
Since some pockets around the state, especially in urban counties, are heavily Democratic, the Republican strategy is to design a few districts where Democratic voters predominate. Other areas then are slotted into districts – a hefty majority of them — that become easy pickings for Republican office-seekers. It’s the old gerrymandering hustle alive and well after all these years, and it works even with an electorate that’s basically split down the middle in its partisan leanings.
Courts at both federal and state levels repeatedly have found these tactics to be in violation of constitutional standards. But the 2020 census gave the legislature another shot at drawing maps that would be in effect for the next decade. What it produced during a rough-and-ready exercise last fall was quickly flagged by voting rights advocates as grossly unfair – particularly to African-Americans, who by law are granted a degree of protection against race-based discrimination, and more broadly to Democrats in general.
The consolidated cases being tried this week before a three-judge Superior Court panel in Raleigh were brought by the N.C. League of Conservation Voters and N.C. Common Cause. Plaintiffs charge that the new district maps for the state House and Senate, and for North Carolina’s congressional delegation, all represent unconstitutional attempts to muzzle Black and Democratic voters (categories that, as it happens, often overlap).
Experts in math, statistics and North Carolina political history described how the enacted maps are likely to produce Republican-friendly results – results so skewed that the map-drawers must have aimed for them.
The approved maps and their expected outcomes were compared to vast numbers of computer-generated simulations that used the legislature’s own purportedly non-partisan mapping criteria, such as avoiding splits in counties and keeping districts compact.
What became clear, experts testified, is that the legislature’s maps had “packed and cracked” Black and Democratic voters – meaning those voters either were overloaded into Democratic-leaning districts or scattered among more numerous Republican ones.
GOP majorities in the General Assembly would be maintained or perhaps even strengthened to the point where any vetoes by a Democratic governor easily could be overridden. And the state’s delegation in the U.S. House, now gaining a 14th seat, would likely split 10-4 in the Republicans’ favor – even though in recent elections overall vote totals have been much more closely divided. Moreover, that lopsided split would be baked in, resistant to any Democratic gains in popularity. So much for healthy competition.
Out the window
The picture painted during the trial, then, is one of maps that are extreme outliers on the spectrum of what could have been expected if district boundaries were set in a spirit of partisan neutrality, if not fairness. What the judges must decide, however, is whether Republican map-drawers went so far overboard as to trample on some voters’ constitutional rights.
If it’s determined that Black voters have not been given a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice – by having been sorted in ways that dilute their influence – that could run afoul of the 15th Amendment’s guarantee that voting rights cannot be denied or abridged on the basis of race. It wouldn’t be the first time North Carolina’s redistricting shenanigans have hit that roadblock.
As to extreme partisan gerrymandering, a narrow U.S. Supreme Court majority led by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. ruled in 2019 that the U.S. Constitution has no provision under which it can be curbed, rendering the federal courts unable to do anything about it. The case hinged on congressional districts drawn by Republicans in (you guessed it) North Carolina along with Maryland districts drawn by Democrats.
But Roberts sent an important signal when he wrote, “Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering. Nor does our conclusion condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void.” He said states have the tools to address the problem.
North Carolina judges took that cue later in 2019 when they found district maps then in effect to violate the state constitution’s guarantee of free elections – i.e., elections in which voters are free to express their will without their votes being rendered meaningless by map-drawers’ partisan wizardry.
Because of that ruling, a new set of maps was devised for the 2020 elections that were marginally more favorable to Democratic candidates (the House delegation, for example, shifted from a 10-3 to an 8-5 Republican edge). But that year’s census meant the whole process had to be redone, using population data that hadn’t been updated since 2010.
Now the question is whether the latest maps, with their over-the-top partisan tilts, embody the same constitutional violations flagged by our state courts after Roberts plainly encouraged them to intervene.
Although North Carolina’s 2022 primary elections were set to be held in March, the state Supreme Court postponed them until May 17 so that the gerrymandering cases could be tried and appealed under an expedited schedule. The panel of judges conducting the trial has been ordered to make a ruling by Jan. 11. The additional time could allow for a court-ordered redraw of the maps if it comes to that, which would be a welcome twist.
The N.C. Council of Churches regards extreme gerrymandering as a form of cancer within our democratic system, depriving many voters of a fair chance to influence the choice of leaders who craft policies that profoundly affect their lives. That includes many people struggling amid the economic, educational, environmental and public health challenges that darken our times.
Nor should it escape notice that many politicians who stand to benefit from gerrymandered election maps still haven’t found the courage or, yes, patriotism to condemn the events of Jan. 6, 2021 and those responsible, including a president who urged his supporters to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” The anti-gerrymandering cases will have to be decided on the basis of facts and laws – but it’s hard to see why defendants in the thrall of such toxic partisanship deserve any benefit of the doubt.