A U.S. Supreme Court ruling will at least give North Carolina’s Republican leaders pause. And it might wreak a little havoc with their carefully gerrymandered legislative and congressional district maps.
Republicans newly in charge of the General Assembly knew exactly what they were doing when they drew new legislative and congressional district lines following the 2010 Census. The process is required by law, to reflect changes in population and additions or subtractions to the number of members of Congress a given state has.
The GOP strategy was transparent: Let’s draw the districts to give Republicans as much of a numerical advantage as possible so we can hold on to power. And, let’s pack minority voters into a few districts to dilute their influence in swing districts over the next 10 years.
It worked. Of 13 members of the House from North Carolina, three are Democrats. And the GOP holds strong majorities in the state House and Senate.
The problem is, districts are supposed to be drawn to provide the most effective representation in terms of geography and the ability of a given member of Congress to respond to constituents. But when they’re composed of squiggly, nonsensical lines that cover misshapen parts of the state and confuse people as to which district they’re in, representative democracy is hindered.
The biggest controversy that erupted over the districts, and has thankfully prompted legal challenge, is that packing of minority voters into certain districts. It may guarantee a few Democrats an advantage, as minority voters tend to vote Democratic, but it makes many more districts overwhelmingly white, and thus overwhelmingly Republican.
Even after taking power, the GOP still wanted to put the fix in, and did.
But now, with a Supreme Court ruling that orders a lower court to review a challenge to Alabama districts put together in a way similar to those districts in North Carolina, Tar Heel Republicans may be in trouble.
The high court basically said a lower federal court needs to look again at whether Alabama Republicans drew voting districts that packed black voters into a few districts and thus diluted their voting power. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, said the lower court should have looked at the district lines on a district-by-district basis, not statewide.
A fair chance
Breyer, The Associated Press reported, said judges focused too much on just numbers and should have posed the question as to what percentages minority voters should have in given districts to have a fair chance of electing their favored candidates. “Asking the wrong question,” Breyer said, “may well have led to the wrong answer.”
This isn’t good news for Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, who are facing a challenge to their partisan district-drawing. Anita Earls of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice is one of those challenging the North Carolina districts. She thinks North Carolina’s challengers have an even stronger case than the one in Alabama. The GOP here went the strictly by-the-numbers route in drawing districts that Breyer seemed to dispute.
Did Democrats draw district lines to their advantage when they were in power? Yes, they did. But Republicans took a few steroids when they did it, as if to pay the Democrats back for all those years the GOP was out of power. They eventually will have to answer for it in court.
The best solution to perennial disputes over redistricting remains a bipartisan commission, to make the calls with only the best designs for constituents, not parties, in mind. As long as redistricting remains so partisan, no matter who is in charge, the districts will continue to be manipulated to the disadvantage of the people who matter most, or should.