Why North Carolina’s high court might finally do something about the cheating in our ever-gerrymandered state.
The outcome of North Carolina elections for the next decade might be decided in a courtroom this week.
That may sound extreme, but it’s not hyperbole. A panel of judges in Wake County are scrutinizing North Carolina’s method of running elections, in which the political party in power sits down every decade and uses data from the US Census to pick the manner in which they will almost certainly be re-elected.
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They do it by diluting the other party’s power across multiple districts, or packing it into one. Gerrymandering has been going on for about 200 years in American politics, but now the computers wielded by partisan mapmakers are so precise that their algorithms practically guarantee victory for the mapmaker in most voting districts.
In some districts, the election is all but a formality.
The maps drawn by Republicans in 2021 are the latest examples. They will easily elect more Republicans in the state legislature and in Congress.
Consider that the split between Democratic and Republican voting in recent years has been nearly even, yet the GOP continues to hold a commanding majority in the state legislature and in NC’s Congressional delegation. It was even worse before the courts ordered new maps in 2019. Back then, the GOP held 10 of 13 Congressional seats despite winning a little more than half of the votes.
In a state so evenly divided, power like this isn’t possible without corruption.
That such a thing would happen naturally, and not without bad intent, is so unlikely as to be “astronomically atypical,” which is how one Duke University mathematician described the GOP’s supposedly improved 2021 maps Monday.
It’s not fair. Democrats in North Carolina did it for decades. And Republicans have used the tactic to brutal effect since they seized power in the state in 2010.
There is a tendency to think of gerrymandering as political jargon, but it’s more than that – it’s dangerous. We should all fear “election-proof” leaders, immune to the consequences of bad actions.
But the judges considering the constitutionality of the state’s newly gerrymandered maps will have the power to change that once and for all. The NC Supreme Court’s decision to postpone the spring primaries — allowing the lower courts time to try this case — indicates they are at least considering bold action on gerrymandering.
And the time for boldness is now.
Why Should You Care?
The folks in North Carolina’s Republican Party are fond of citing the Founding Fathers.
So let’s cite them. When those Founding Fathers conceived of multiple branches of government, they intended the separate branches to curb the worst excesses of any one branch.
Today in North Carolina, the state’s legislative branch has run amok. Their mapmaking makes campaigning, messaging, and policies almost irrelevant in some lopsided districts.
What’s the point of using power responsibly if you are immune to constituents’ feelings?
In a state with fair districts, it’s hard to imagine lawmakers’ blithe opposition to popular ideas like Medicaid expansion, gun reform, adequate public school funding, and climate change reform. We have nothing to fear, it seems, but fearless lawmakers.
Federal courts struck down the state’s maps in 2016 because they were drawn to limit the power of Black voters. Because courts had historically been reluctant to curtail gerrymandering, Republican legislators were so bold as to brag about it back then.
These days they keep the taunting to a minimum. And the 2021 maps, they insist, do not consider race at all.
Their thinking is obvious. If the courts will not tolerate a gerrymander meant to limit the power of Black voters, perhaps they will tolerate a gerrymander meant to limit the power of any and all Democratic voters.
It will be up to this panel of judges, and perhaps ultimately the NC Supreme Court, to find a new way. Taking the mapmaking out of the hands of partisan lawmakers altogether and placing it within the hands of independent, demographically representative, citizen-led commissions seems a good start.
Doing so wouldn’t and shouldn’t guarantee better returns for Democrats and progressives, but it would ensure voters can see the representatives they choose have a fighting chance at office.
Don’t mistake gerrymandering’s antiquity for inevitability. Gerrymandering is a choice. A choice made by politicians to hold onto power, and a choice made by people to tolerate it.
There’s no moral justification. And hopefully soon, there’ll be no legal justification either.
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