Nahshon Blount, a low-wage worker in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Fight for $15
Nahshon Blount, a low-wage worker in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Fight for $15

The minimum wage is still $7.25 in North Carolina, in part because Republicans undertook a decade-long effort to entrench their power through extreme gerrymandering, voter purges, and restrictive voting laws.

Growing up in a predominantly Black, high-poverty community in Plymouth, North Carolina, Nahshon Blount suffered from asthma. His mother, who had heart issues and was in and out of the hospital, was forced to drop out of college when she gave birth to his younger sister. Even though he was young at the time, Blount recalls how difficult those times were.

Then, in 2009, things went from bad to worse: Blount’s mother passed away. Her tragic death left the two kids in the care of their stepfather, whom Blount did not get along with. 

These difficult experiences are what motivate him to want to pursue a career in health care: The 20-year-old wants to become a doctor to create a better life for himself. Blount still remembers what his mother told him about his dream before she passed away. 

“She said, ‘You say you want to be a doctor, go to school and be a doctor. Don’t let anything stop you,’” Blount told Cardinal & Pine. 

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Blount, who lives in Durham, has a plan to achieve that dream. He wants to start college classes at a technical school, transfer to a four-year program, and obtain his nursing degree. After that? Medical school. 

There’s only one problem: Blount can’t afford the tuition because he earns only $8.50 per hour working full-time at McDonald’s. 

Meanwhile, Blount also helps provide for his 18-year-old sister. “Anything she says she wants, I get it for her with no questions asked,” he said. “She wants to go to school for cosmetology, which I told her I would [help her pay for] because I want better for her the same way I want better for me.”

Juggling these expenses on such a low income has made it difficult for him to save for school, forcing him to postpone his education. “If the minimum wage went up, I could definitely afford to go to college,” Blount said. 

Instead, the $7.25 minimum wage in North Carolina has remained flat since the federal government last raised it in 2009. Even though dozens of states have boosted their minimum wage in recent years, North Carolina has failed to raise its rate, allowing billion-dollar companies like McDonald’s to continue paying poverty wages. 

Despite widespread support among North Carolinians, both congressional and state-level Republicans have refused to enact a minimum wage increase. In a fair, free, and responsive democracy, opposing such popular ideas would usually spell the end of a political career. But in North Carolina, these politicians have found crafty, if cynical, ways to hold onto their power without being fully accountable to voters. 

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Republicans are poised to continue those efforts. That is, unless lawmakers in Congress can pass meaningful election reform legislation.

‘They Don’t Have to Listen to Actual Voters’

In order to understand why North Carolina has failed to raise the minimum wage on the state level, we must first look at who actually controls the legislature and its agenda. For the past decade, that’s been Republicans. After winning majorities in the state House and Senate during the 2010 elections, the GOP went to great lengths to maintain and expand their power through a process called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering occurs when a political party draws or redraws the boundary lines of congressional and state legislative districts in such a way as to maximize the number of seats they hold, making it easier for them to cling to power. 

Here’s how gerrymandering works: Every 10 years, the US government conducts a census, or a survey of its population. That data is then used to decide how many seats, or political representatives, each state gets in the 435-member House of Representatives. In most states, including North Carolina, whichever political party has the majority in the state legislature is responsible for redrawing congressional districts as well as state legislative maps. 

This means that the party in charge—in North Carolina’s case, Republicans—can effectively draw as many districts as possible that will elect members of their party, and only a few that will elect members of the other party. This makes it easier for the party in control to win elections, resulting in a vicious cycle where it becomes almost impossible for the opposition party to gain a majority. 

“What happens is your representative or senator doesn’t have any accountability toward you,” Katelin Kaiser, a voting rights legal fellow at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), told Cardinal & Pine. “They know that they can draw lines in such a way where they don’t have to listen to actual voters, because they know that ‘My power is entrenched and the only person that can really stop that is me, because I’m the one in control of the maps.’”

The North Carolina GOP’s strategy proved incredibly effective, where Republicans implemented racially gerrymandered maps that took political power away from the state’s large number of Black voters by either “packing” them into a few districts, or “cracking” them among several Republican districts.

“Either way … vote power is diluted,” Kaiser said.

As a result, Republicans held a near two-thirds majority in both the state House and Senate for much of the last decade, despite the purple nature of the state. This has allowed them to repeatedly block minimum wage hikes that Democrats have proposed and that most North Carolinians want.

Nationally, Republicans held nine or 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats for most of those years, even as North Carolina voters elected a Democratic governor and only narrowly went for Donald Trump in 2016. The state’s gerrymandered map, along with others in states like Pennsylvania, helped the GOP maintain a House majority for most of the decade, allowing them to obstruct any minimum wage increases at the federal level.

“We’re unfortunately, by no question, number one in gerrymandering,” Bob Phillips, executive director of the nonpartisan organization Common Cause North Carolina, told Cardinal & Pine. 

Both sets of maps were the subject of numerous lawsuits—including cases brought by Common Cause and the SCSJ—and were later struck down by courts due to their extreme gerrymanders, forcing the state legislature to redraw the maps. Still, their impact lingers on. 

Gerrymandering robs voters of their voice and makes lawmakers less accountable to constituents, according to Kaiser and Phillips. This has had a corrosive effect on policy at both the state and federal levels.

“What gets drowned out is socio- and economic needs for the community, things that will make communities thrive, things that will make communities have more agency, things that will ensure that communities are treated with dignity and respect,” Kaiser said. “When you are allowing your constituents, citizens of North Carolina, to live off of a poverty wage, to have to use GoFundMe to support their medical care … it puts burdens on citizens that shouldn’t be there.”

While the state’s current maps are a less egregious gerrymander, they still hand Republicans a disproportionate share of power at both the federal and state level. And with the once-a-decade  process of redrawing districts set to take place later this year, both Phillips and Kaiser worry the GOP will once again implement an extreme gerrymander.

“I don’t doubt for a minute that what we’re going to see in the fall once this data comes in is that the folks in charge are going to try to push, as far as they can, maps that will give them the greatest numbers they possibly can enjoy,” Phillips said.

‘Number One in Voter Suppression’

Gerrymandering isn’t the only method that Republicans have used to entrench their power in North Carolina. 

“We have also been in the past decade number one in voter suppression,” Phillips said.

After the Supreme Court struck down much of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, North Carolina’s Republican leadership passed a restrictive voter identification law that rejected forms of ID used disproportionately by Black voters, such as those issued to government employees, students, and those receiving public assistance. The measure was so egregious that a federal appeals court eventually ruled it was used to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Republicans later passed another voter ID law in 2018—overriding Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto—that has thus far survived court challenges. 

Over the last decade, the state GOP also passed laws eliminating same-day voter registration and cutting early voting by a week. They also purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the voter rolls and eliminated other measures intended to expand voter participation. 

In effect, rather than actually raising the state’s minimum wage above the paltry $7.25 rate or embracing other popular ideas, such as Medicaid expansion, Republicans opted to make voting more difficult for their constituents, particularly those who would benefit from such measures.

Many voting rights advocates, including the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II of the Poor People’s Campaign, viewed these efforts as deliberate attempts to suppress the votes of Black North Carolinians. 

“For decades, grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and literacy tests were enacted to disenfranchise Black voters,” Barber wrote in a 2018 op-ed. “Today, voter suppression continues to hide behind the letter of the law. My home state of North Carolina has become ground zero for the fight against voter suppression in this country.”

That fight is once again alive and well after the 2020 election, thanks to former President Trump’s unfounded claims about voter fraud. 

Between August and January, Trump made nearly 2,300 false or misleading claims about the 2020 election, according to a Washington Post database. None of those statements was ever proven, and his campaign lost more than 60 court cases challenging election results. Nonetheless, Republican lawmakers in states across the country have introduced more than 250 bills to disenfranchise voters, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. Only one of those bills have been proposed in North Carolina, an effort that would ban the state’s elections boards from collecting absentee ballots after 5 p.m. on Election Day regardless of when the ballot was mailed.

But more could be on the horizon. 

‘We Have to Fix Our Democracy’

To stop the GOP’s war on democracy, Democrats at the national level have one arrow left in their quiver: the For The People Act (HR 1). Passed by the US House on March 3, HR 1 would implement independent redistricting commissions, ban voter purges, allow automatic voter registration, and set unified early and mail-in voting standards for federal elections. All eight Republican representatives from North Carolina voted against the bill, while the state’s five Democrats voted for it.

Gerrymandering – US Supreme Court
Organizations and individuals gathered outside the Supreme Court argue the manipulation of district lines is the manipulation of elections. The Supreme Court to hear gerrymandering cases Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (Photo by Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The bill is all but certain to stall out in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has made clear he opposes the comprehensive democracy reform bill. If Democrats choose to eliminate the filibuster—a Senate procedure that allows any one senator to obstruct a bill from being voted on and requires 60 senators to override—they could pass the For the People Act with their 50-vote majority (with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote) and halt gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts in North Carolina.

Here’s how: The sweeping proposal would establish independent redistricting commissions and task them with publicly drawing new congressional districts, effectively ending gerrymandering in federal elections. This would include enhanced protections for racial and ethnic groups who are most often disenfranchised, such as North Carolina’s Black residents.

“When we think about the principle of one person, one vote, every voice should be heard. It shouldn’t be diluted through extreme partisan gerrymandering,” Kaiser said.

While the state legislature would still be in charge of drawing the state House and Senate maps and could continue to gerrymander those, other impacts of HR 1 could filter down to the state level and allow for more proportional representation. 

The law would allow for online and same-day voter registration for federal elections, while automatically registering any eligible North Carolinian who interacts with a government agency. It would also ban the purging of voter rolls and require states with voter ID laws to allow residents who lack ID to vote in federal races so long as they complete a sworn affidavit confirming their identity. Finally, it would set national standards for federal elections, mandating at least 15 consecutive early voting days, while allowing any voter who wants to vote by mail to do so.

While these rules would not apply to state and local elections, Kaiser believes it would be very difficult for states to have to run two different types of elections, which could compel them to match the federal rules. 

“Few states are going to want to have different rules and practices for state and federal elections,” she said.

While there’s certainly no guarantee passage of HR 1 would lead to a $15 minimum wage or other popular policies being implemented, the bill would “lower barriers to the ballot box and ensure that everyone has a right to access the vote,” according to Kaiser. This could force lawmakers to actually listen to constituents like Blount, the Durham fast food worker, and represent their interests.

If they did, a $15 minimum wage would be more likely to become reality, either at the state or federal level. If that happened, Blount would no longer have to put in 50-hour weeks just to scrape by and would be one step closer to actually achieving his dream of becoming a doctor. But right now, that dream remains on hold, overshadowed by the reality of working a low-wage job. 

“If I know I’m not going to have enough money, I’ll work 17-hour shifts just so I can have enough money to provide for my family,” Blount said. “I go in at two o’clock and won’t get off until, like, eight or nine o’clock in the morning. And then I come back and do the same thing.”