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Judges may give North Carolina’s democracy back

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Has the North Carolina General Assembly’s gerrymandering finally become so blatant and destructive of democracy that the courts will end politically inspired redistricting for good? Maybe. In fact, it’s beginning to look that way.

A three-judge federal panel has now ruled twice that North Carolina lawmakers pushed political gerrymandering beyond any reasonable limits and created electoral districts that stomp on the soul and principles of democracy. The first ruling, tinged with considerable judicial outrage, was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices used their last term to duck several similar issues, sending our case and several others back to the lower courts for review.

This week, the panel that reviewed the North Carolina case came back with an even stronger rebuke to the architects of this state’s electoral maps. Writing for the judicial panel, Judge James Wynn of the U.S. Court of Appeals 4th Circuit said that, “We continue to lament that North Carolina voters now have been deprived of a constitutional congressional districting plan — and therefore, constitutional representation in Congress — for six years and three election cycles.” Giving the lawmakers another shot at redrawing the map, he said, “would further delay electing representatives under a constitutional districting.” The judges said they’re not inclined to give the lawmakers another chance, but may instead appoint a special master to do the job for them.

It’s about time. The lawmakers who drew the state’s electoral districts, led by state Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, were blatant and unrepentant about their political bias. “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” Lewis said when the latest plan was adopted in 2016. “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

So he did indeed oversee a map that gives Republicans an overwhelming majority in our state’s congressional and General Assembly delegations — despite the fact that this state’s Republican population lags behind both Democrats and unaffiliated voters. On statewide races and issues, this state trends “purple,” sometimes selecting Democrats and sometimes Republicans, usually in a fairly close vote. Logic would dictate that our congressional delegation and our General Assembly would reflect that balance. But thanks to the wonders of computer-generated electoral maps, the Republicans have given themselves a completely unrepresentative grip on the political process, including the ability to easily override any vetoes cast by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have long held that redistricting is an inherently political process and they consistently upheld challenges to gerrymandering. But now, the process has become so outrageous — with North Carolina serving as a shameful national example — that the courts are leaning strongly toward some limits on partisan redistricting.

The timing of this latest decision may be disruptive. North Carolina has already held its primary elections and campaigning for the November elections has begun in earnest. If the courts require another redrawing of the districts, they may also force new primaries. That might happen in November, with a final congressional election to be held early next year. The judges will rule on that soon.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that Republicans will also appeal this latest decision to the nation’s highest court. But with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, that court is split 4-4 between Democratic and Republican appointees and a tie vote on the appeal seems likely. That would uphold the lower court’s decision and bring on redistricting and new elections.

As inconvenient as that may be, it’s exactly what we need. It’s time, once and for all, to end the kind of gerrymandering that has become the very antithesis of democracy. We’ve got to do better than this.

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