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The last federal census began nearly eight years ago. When it was completed, the General Assembly took the new population numbers and redrew the state’s legislative districts. The result has been in and out of the courts ever since.
The way things are going, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the litigation is continuing at some level by the time the next census is underway.
The filing period for state House and Senate seats opens in just over a month, and yet the boundaries of 28 of the state’s 170 districts are still up in the air. That includes districts in Hoke, Cumberland, Bladen and Sampson counties. A three-judge federal panel will reconvene a court session on Friday to take questions about new districts drawn by a Stanford University law professor who was assigned to the task after Republican lawmakers were unable — or unwilling — to create districts that repaired what the jurists said was racial gerrymandering.
The dispute adds a new level of complexity to the already complicated art and science of gerrymandering. It’s OK, jurists all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled for years, if redistricting is done for political purposes. But it’s not OK if the gerrymandering involves race. Any drawing of district boundaries that weakens the influence of minority voters is unconstitutional. And that’s exactly what North Carolina lawmakers have done, the nation’s highest court affirmed last year.
It’s clear from the maps that the lawmakers crammed as many minority voters into as few districts as possible — far greater numbers than needed for electoral victory, and weakening minority presence in adjacent districts. The logic in such decisions is not necessarily racist (although sometimes it may well be), but rather an acknowledgment that the overwhelming majority of African-Americans vote for Democrats.
So the Republican mapmakers drew the lines one more time last year, and they said they did it without consulting any racial data. How could that possibly create racially gerrymandered districts? Well, it did, and the federal judicial panel finally threw in the towel and hired Stanford professor Nathaniel Persily to do the job. Persily wrote that his maps got rid of “all of the constitutional infirmities the Court has identified in the plans enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2017.”
Did he? We may hear what the judges think later this week.
Meanwhile, how do candidates get ready to run? Their filing period opens in mid-February and their primary is in early May. How do you campaign when you don’t even know what your district boundaries are? We’d like to assume that the redistricting issues will be settled before candidates have to file for office, but we’ve wanted to assume that in the past, and the courts have consistently found fault with the updated districts.
All of this is our latest evidence that the American system of gerrymandering is finally broken beyond repair. There’s even been some discussion at the U.S. Supreme Court that signals the justices’ willingness to rethink the redistricting-is-inherently-political doctrine. It’s about time.
Even as support has grown across North Carolina for handing redistricting over to an independent, nonpartisan commission, our lawmakers have continued their almost laughably hypocritical dance around the issue. Several of the Republicans now in top leadership positions were, when they were the minority party, sponsors of legislation that would create just such a commission.
Likewise, Democrats who now are pressing for the commission wouldn’t hear of it when they ruled the roost. Meanwhile, the current crop of Republicans is working harder than any group we’ve yet seen to thoroughly politicize every elected position, down to district court judges and even school boards.
If North Carolina lawmakers won’t hand redistricting over to an independent board, then it’s time for another flurry of lawsuits that will push the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court in a drive to finally toss out political gerrymandering.