The last few weeks have made clear again what government reform advocates have said for almost 30 years in North Carolina. Politicians should not be allowed to choose their voters, to draw their own districts for election to anything, Congress, the General Assembly, or city council.
Monday the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court that the legislative and congressional districts drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2011 were constitutional and ordered the state court to determine if the plans relied too much on race by packing minority voters into districts to maximize the number of Republicans elected.
Republican legislative leaders and their supporters brushed off the news, calling it merely procedural and not unexpected, and restated their tiresome talking point that the districts were “fair and legal.”
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide on the legality of the plans and Monday’s ruling raises serious questions about them. The fairness claim is absurd on its face.
No one disputes that North Carolina is evenly divided politically. Every major statewide election, from the 2014 U.S. Senate race to recent presidential contests, is decided by a few percentage points.
But thanks to the gerrymandered maps, Republicans hold a supermajority in the state House and Senate and control 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats. That’s far greater than their support in the electorate even after a strong election for Republicans last fall.
Legislative leaders, despite their disingenuous talking points, know they have rigged the game — just like the Democrats rigged it when they were in the majority.
And a significant number of lawmakers from both parties want to change that, to turn redistricting over to an independent process that creates districts that make sense to the voters instead of being designed to protect politicians.
One House bill to do that has 63 sponsors this year. That’s a majority of the House. A similar plan passed the House in 2011 with 88 votes but the Senate never considered it.
This year’s House bill has yet to have a hearing, an ominous sign as the crossover deadlines looms next week. Bills that have not passed one chamber by the deadline are technically dead for the remainder of the two-year legislative session, though they can be resurrected with some parliamentary maneuvering.
It’s hard to imagine a bill that is co-sponsored by a majority of the House or Senate never even coming up for a vote, but that’s a real threat this year as political forces outside the state don’t seem too thrilled about giving power back to the voters.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling throwing the legislative and congressional districts into question comes as the General Assembly moves to redraw districts in local elections in Wake County, Greensboro, and other areas of the state.
The justifications are different in each case but the real reason is the same in every one. Too many Democrats are winning and the Republicans don’t like it. Nothing fair about that and the local redistricting plans may not be legal either, as several of them will also wind up in the courts.
The solution to this partisan power-grabbing is not that complicated on any level. Take the power to draw districts out of the hands of politicians who have a self-interest and partisan motive in what the districts look like.
The public gets it. Polls show 70 percent of voters supporting turning over redistricting to a nonpartisan staff or commission.
The fate of the current legislative and congressional districts will ultimately be decided by the federal courts and the folks objecting to the role race plays in designing them seem to have a legitimate point.
But the ultimate answer will not come from a court. It will come from the people demanding to choose who represents them, not leaving it up to whichever political party is in power.
That ought to sound familiar to political leaders. It’s called democracy.