Our state spends way too much time in the Supreme Court. The justices have taken notice.
In Justice Kagan’s recent opinion deciding Cooper v. Harris, she noted that N.C.’s 12th Congressional District was “making its fifth appearance before this Court.”
In addition to Cooper v. Harris, which held Congressional Districts 1 and 12 are illegal gerrymanders, a June 5 Supreme Court decision, North Carolina v. Covington, determined that 28 N.C. House and Senate districts are unlawful gerrymanders. The state remains mired in similar litigation. Since the current cycle of redistricting began in 2011, eight lawsuits were filed with claims of gerrymandering. Another – Dickson v. Rucho – has engaged the justices twice. As one justice observed, “We have almost reached a new redistricting cycle without any certainty as to the constitutionality of North Carolina’s current redistricting map.”
Gerrymandering has been used for 200 years by both parties. Nowadays, because of highly sophisticated computer tools, those in power can ensure they stay in power by precisely carving out districts with sympathetic voters. As legislators pursue their own partisan interests, we individual voters lose vote integrity and our democracy becomes weakened.
In North Carolina, we keep churning – partisan redistricting, then litigation, then court-ordered reforms and still more partisan redistricting. This takes a huge toll on the business of governing and produces enormous legal costs. One recent study for Common Cause North Caroline concludes that since 2011 the state has paid out $5 million for redistricting litigation. And this does not count in legal and other staff resources in the General Assembly and the Attorney General’s office. With other cases pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, and several awaiting trial, additional seven-figure costs are inevitable.
The costs are more than financial. Citizens are concerned about lawmakers’ unresponsiveness to real issues. At state and federal levels, we observe with frustration partisan gridlock, entrenched incumbents, extremist thinking, blatant obstructionism and aversion to compromise. When we consider how lawmakers, once in power, routinely use gerrymandering to stay in power, the reasons become clear. Our politicians are no longer accountable to the people.
Many fear that democracy is unsustainable without checks on gerrymandering. For example, in the 2016 general election, 46 percent of legislative seats had no opposition; no congressional races were competitive. In gerrymandered districts, politicians tend to adopt extreme views pleasing to their base. Ordinary citizens feel they have no say in who represents them. And this view, that one’s vote does not count, leads to deep distrust of government. Less than 20 percent of Americans say they always or mostly trust the U.S. government. Thus forces against our democracy have gained considerable inroads – without guns and bombs.
A January 2017 Public Policy Polling survey found 59 percent of voters in favor of making the map-drawing process nonpartisan. Over the years, North Carolina lawmakers in both political parties have shown willingness to consider a nonpartisan redistricting process, but efforts have stalled or been blocked.
The General Assembly has before it two bills, House Bill 200 and Senate Bill 209, which present a solution to the unproductive cycle of redistrict – sue – court order – redistrict. But leaders of the General Assembly have refused to bring these bills out of committee for a vote. HB200 and SB209 are similar to successful efforts in other states to take politics out of the redistricting process. Instead of lawmakers drawing their districts, a nonpartisan legislative staff would create congressional and legislative maps completely blind to political considerations. That process would be followed by public hearings and vote by the legislature.
With the passage of HB200 and SB209, citizens can finally have confidence that their legislative districts are drawn in a fair, impartial and constitutional way. The time has come to end gerrymandering and restore full democracy. The legislature will reconvene Aug. 3. I urge people to contact their state lawmakers and ask them to support nonpartisan redistricting. Also contact House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and urge them to let HB200 and SB209 be given a vote.
By Phyllis H. Demko is a retired North Carolina attorney and a volunteer for Common Cause North Carolina. Larry King is a board member of Common Cause N.C.