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“North Carolina Is Ordered to Redraw Its Congressional Map”
You’re not seeing double and it’s not a typo. These are headlines from Jan. 9 and Monday after a special panel of federal judges decided for a second time that the state’s congressional districts are unconstitutional due to excessive partisanship.
It was not clear what impact the ruling might have on the general election. The field for the election is set, with early voting beginning Oct. 17 and Election Day on Nov. 6.
In its 321-page opinion, the panel did not rule out requiring the Republican-controlled General Assembly to redraw the map for this election. The decision also raised the possibility of letting the general election serve as a new primary for the congressional races, then holding a special election for the final vote.
It’s not only the headlines that feel like deja vu all over again, to channel Yogi Berra. Once again, the timing and details of a North Carolina election have been thrown into doubt not long before Election Day. This time we’ll channel Oliver Hardy: Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.
The “you” in this case is the current Republican majorities in the General Assembly, who’ve apparently decided their ideas are not popular enough to win on a basically level playing field. (Don’t Republicans preach guaranteed opportunities rather than guaranteed outcomes?)
But it’s not just the Republicans. Although computer technology has helped the GOP master the art of the gerrymander, Democrats laid the foundation when they controlled the legislature, making it difficult for them to claim any ethical high ground. And if the Democrats were to win back control of the legislature, we have no doubt that they would return the favor.
It’s a vicious cycle of “well, they did it to us,” which has become the battle cry of modern politics. It breeds hyper-partisanship, giving overrepresentation to the extremes of the political parties who, in turn, relish in cheering on their leaders to punch back even harder at the other side.
Elsewhere, Congress has made no serious effort to ensure our representative democracy is, well, actually representative. The Open Our Democracy Act, which, among other things, would require states to establish independent commissions for congressional redistricting, has been languishing in a U.S. House subcommittee for a year.
Meanwhile, although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against racial gerrymandering — including in a North Carolina case — the court has never found partisan gerrymandering to be unconstitutional. However, some legal observers have said that North Carolina’s current congressional districts are so blatantly partisan that the court might finally intervene.
In North Carolina, registered Democrats (2,662,752) outnumber registered Republicans (2,089,771) by half a million people. There are 2,201,582 Tar Heels registered as unaffiliated.
In 2010, seven of the state’s 13 House seats were held by Democrats. Republicans won control of the General Assembly that year and redrew the map. The next election flipped the advantage to the Republicans, giving them a 9-4 edge. A redrawn map in 2016 -- the one now at issue -- made it a 10 to 3 advantage and only a few of those districts are actually competitive.
The smoking gun is this admission by Rep. David R. Lewis, a state representative from Harnett County, who helped lead the 2016 redistricting:
“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,” Lewis told fellow legislators.
In addition to significantly stacking the deck, these contorted maps have other side effects — like the Wilmington area, the most-populous coastal region in the state — having a congressman from Johnston County, 100 miles inland and not exactly aligned with vital coastal issues. The extreme gerrymandering and resulting court battles also continue to disrupt the election process.
State Republican leaders are accusing the courts of meddling in an election. Of course, one person’s meddling is another person’s petition for “equal protection of the laws,” as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
Want to keep our election process out of the courts? We do too. So here’s an idea — draw a map that is so obviously fair and so faithful to the ideal of representative democracy that anyone calling it unconstitutional would get laughed out of court.