Abortion Access and Rural Health Threatened by Partisan Gerrymandering

N.C. Rep. Abe Jones, U.S. Congressman Wiley Nickel of North Carolina and Cassandra Stokes of North Carolina Black Alliance attend a discussion on redistricting in Raleigh on Monday. (Michael McElroy/Cardinal & Pine)

By Michael McElroy

September 27, 2023

Republicans in the North Carolina legislature could create election maps that ensure party dominance for the next decade over several issues that affect day-to-day lives.

Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly are yet again meeting in private to decide a fundamental question of representative government: Do voters choose their leaders, or can leaders choose their voters?

For the third time in two years, it’s time to draw election maps, a process that may seem boring, but will determine the health and integrity of the voting process in North Carolina, advocacy groups and Democratic leaders said this week.

While redrawing state and congressional maps is a vital process, it can easily become tainted by partisan gerrymandering, the bad-faith manipulation of district boundaries to guarantee a specific party wins elections.

“North Carolina deserves a fair and transparent redistricting process that ensures that every voice and every vote is heard and accounted for,” Congressman Wiley Nickel of North Carolina said at a redistricting roundtable in Raleigh on Monday.

He invited speakers from several state rights groups to highlight the vast range of issues gerrymandering affects.

“It’s incredibly important to hear directly from the folks who are on the front lines during this process,” Nickel said.

The group’s message: gerrymandering will have a direct effect on abortion rights, climate change, workers rights, rural representation, health care and nearly every other issue that affects people’s lives.

So it’s time to pay attention, they said, even as Republicans in the legislature work to keep this process largely out of public view.

A Bad-Faith Process

Both parties have a history of gerrymandering in the state, but Republicans have gone all out in recent years. They have a supermajority in the state legislature and, unlike last year when their maps were ruled unconstitutional, they now have a majority on the state Supreme Court. This allows the party to draw new maps that are almost certain to be gerrymandered.

The fear, the rights groups said, is that legislative leaders will draw the maps in the same way they enacted the state’s 12-week abortion ban and new state budget: behind closed doors, with little to no public input, and over the objections of experts in the field.

“Open and transparent redistricting is not only fundamental to a representative democracy, but it is also crucial to strengthening trust in our elected officials and government,” a separate group of more than 50 organizations wrote to lawmakers this week. “The recent actions (and inactions) of legislative leaders make us deeply concerned that the NCGA [North Carolina General Assembly] will once again fail at its responsibility to create a robust, transparent, and thoughtful process.

Gerrymandering is a political threat and it is not unavoidable, the roundtable speakers said on Monday.

“Fair maps are absolutely, 100% possible if you have a good process and you have legislators working in good faith,” Hilary Harris Klein, senior counsel for voting rights with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said.

Which is the problem, the roundtable agreed: The process has not been conducted in good faith.

The potentially harmful outcomes of this bad faith process have never been more clear than during the current legislative session.

Abortion

North Carolina’s new 12-week abortion ban (Senate Bill 20) may be the most glaring example of gerrymandering’s reach, Ashley Farmer of the North Carolina chapter of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said.

“SB 20 was introduced in the dark of night, it did not go through a fair process, it did not go through a fair hearing,” she said.

The bill was released to the public just 48 hours before the legislature voted on it in May. The Republican supermajority overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

“We don’t have federal protections anymore,” Farmer said. “The Supreme Court decided that it’s up to the states now, and that’s made it more important that we have fair maps in North Carolina.”

She added: “Throughout the SB 20 fight I frequently heard from people in rural areas and counties saying ‘my elected official is making votes that don’t represent my community, I am frustrated, I am outraged.’”

The slow erosion of rights is part of the Republican plan, Jones said.

“Just because you gain something doesn’t mean you retain it,” he said.

“They went around and got a court to change women’s rights. I never thought I’d live to see that. I remember Roe v. Wade, 1973; I was in college. These guys got it changed. Got it changed. 51 years – gone.”

“They will keep passing more and more laws to chip away, chip away, chip away [at abortion rights],” he said, unless voters stop the,.

“We’ve got to get people registered [to vote], and then we’ve got to get people to turn out,” he said.

There was still time before the 2024 elections, Jones added.

“It’s a little tricky, but it’s not undoable.”

Rural Concerns

Gerrymandering can be particularly damaging in rural communities, splitting people with similar needs into different districts and instead pairing them with residents who may live in different counties and/or in more urban or suburban areas with different priorities.

Splitting communities this way tends to affect voter turnout, which is one of the goals of a partisan gerrymander. It’s not just to build a district full of your party’s voters, it’s to draw maps so devoid of community that you discourage voters from the other party, too.

It’s how you have people in Selma drawn into a map that requires them to vote in Pine Level, Liz Lynn, a regional organizer with Down Home NC, said.

“They have expressed to me that they don’t even go [to vote] because they don’t know who is in Pine Level, they don’t know who’s the mayor, who’s on the board there. They’re not connected with that community,” Lynn said.

That also discourages people from running for office, she said, because gerrymandering entrenches incumbents as much as it disenfranchises voters.

“A lot of seats in Johnston County go unopposed,” Lynn said, “because of the history of the county and the records and power of the elected officials.”

Fair maps, she said, would empower rural, working class people “so that they can see themselves in that seat as well.

“We need better representation,” Lynn said. “We need people that have these lived experiences so that they make better decisions for us.”

Voting

“The most important issue in a Democracy is voting,” State Rep. Abe Jones, a Democrat who serves on the House redistricting committee, said at the roundtable.

Republicans have passed several new laws that affect voting in North Carolina, many provisions of which came against the objections of state officials and voting rights groups.

It may seem confusing and irrelevant to the general public, Jones said, but he said he couldn’t “overemphasize the importance of learning the new rules” and of paying attention to the voting maps.

“Be vigilant,” he said. “It’s all on the table.”

While race-based gerrymandering is against the law, partisan gerrymandering is not. So it takes only a few strategic maneuvers to mask the intent.

The thinly-veiled racial gerrymandering, Jones said, is an extension of the violence faced by civil rights activists in the 50s and 60s.

“There was a time they set dogs on Black people to stop them from voting and exercising their rights,” he said.

“The sentiment in their gut is the same,” he said of current Republicans. “They’re not going to use dogs, but they’re using legalistic dogs.”

Rights groups have to educate voters about the process and the new voting rules, he said.

Workers’ Rights

North Carolina is the worst state in the nation to be a worker.

A new report lists it dead last. Last overall, last in wage policies, next to last in worker protections, and one of only four states with zero right to unionize.

These are policy choices, the result of laws written, passed, and enacted by the General Assembly.

“We’ve not had any great gains in labor laws in North Carolina for the last 18-20 years,” said Drew Edwards, a union rep with a North Carolina chapter of the Communications Workers of America.

“It’s going to continue to get harder as they gerrymander and the people who are drawing the districts get to tell [voters] who is going to represent you.”

Anti-union sentiment flows downhill from the legislature, he said, often based on mischaracterizations and outright falsehoods.

Gerrymandering and partisan politics, he said, can “erode the vote, period.”

He continued: “You can actually have people who vote against their own best interests because you have planted some type of false image in their head of what this would be.”

A Dizzying Timeline

It’s no wonder gerrymandering evades the focus of most voters.

Not only is the process intentionally complex and loaded with jargon, but the recent history in the courts is enough to induce electoral whiplash.

Hang on to something sturdy while we give you a quick timeline.

Republicans redrew the maps based on the 2020 census.

Several months before the 2022 election, the North Carolina Supreme Court, then with a 4-3 Democratic majority, ruled that the maps were unconstitutional because they violated the state demands of free and fair elections for every voter. How so? Partisan gerrymandering that seemed surgically designed to dilute the power of Democratic voters, especially voters of color.

The court ordered the maps redrawn.

Republicans balked and appealed the decision on a fast track to the US Supreme Court, arguing that the state constitution gives the legislature unlimited power to conduct elections however it wants as long as it’s not in violation of federal law.

But while the US Supreme Court mulled the issue, the 2022 midterm elections flipped control of the North Carolina Supreme Court from 4-3, Democratic to 5-2, Republican. Soon after the new term began, the new court took the unprecedented step of rehearing the gerrymandering case and several other high-profile decisions, and then reversed the previous ruling.

The legislature, the new court ruled, can do virtually whatever they want with state elections and maps.

This means that North Carolina’s current congressional map—which resulted in 7 Democrats and 7 Republicans being elected to represent the state in the US House, reflecting the nearly 50-50 split among registered Democrats and Republicans in the state— could be redrawn by state Republicans to produce as many as 11 Republican seats.

There is no reality under which North Carolina tilts that far to the right.

In 2020, Donald Trump beat Joe Biden in the state by only 74,483 votes, or just over a percentage point. Gov. Roy Cooper, however, a Democrat, won reelection the same year by a far bigger margin over his Republican opponent. Cooper got nearly 100,000 more votes than Trump.

‘Stuff it Down Their Throats’

“We can win this,” Jones said.

“My dream is we wake up the day after Election Day in November 2024 and the turnout has been great and the energy has been higher because they came at us,” he said.

“This is what you get when you try to touch that third rail. People get upset. People get energized. People get angry. And people go vote. That’s what we need to do. Prove them wrong and stuff it down their throats,” he said.

“I don’t know how I can follow that,” Nickel said.

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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