The U.S. Supreme Court made it official on Monday what long-suffering voters in North Carolina have known intuitively: The reactionary Republicans who rule the General Assembly do not reflect the true will of the people.
The high court affirmed a 2016 ruling by a three-member panel of federal judges that found that 28 of the state’s districts that elect members of the state House and Senate were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. What the high court’s action means is that the lower court’s finding stands: Members of the General Assembly were elected in 2012, 2014 and 2016 from districts that did not meet constitutional muster for fairness.
The three-judge panel found that districts drawn by the General Assembly Republican majority in 2011 improperly used race to concentrate African-American voters into a few districts so their overall voting power would be diluted in more districts. Since African-Americans tend to vote Democratic, the Republicans gained an unfair partisan advantage by disadvantaging African-Americans.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not support the remedy ordered by the three-judge panel, namely that the legislature redraw the districts in a legal fashion and hold a special legislative election in 2017. The three judges wrote in their order, “While special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander.”
The Supreme Court, rather unconvincingly, contended that the three judges had not properly considered the cost and disruption of a holding a special election.
In this case, in political rather than strictly legal terms, no consideration is needed. Given the chaos and polarization caused by the Republican majority, whether it be austere budgets, a failure to expand Medicaid, the expense of defending its unconstitutional laws or the damage done by House Bill 2, the benefits of forcing this group to stand in a fair election would be worth any expense.
Indeed, the option of a 2017 vote is still alive. The three-judge panel could offer a more complete explanation for why a special election is needed and new districts could be drawn in time for a vote this fall.
As Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and counsel for the redistricting challengers, said in a statement Monday, “Many North Carolinians have been participating in unfair elections in racially gerrymandered districts for far too long. It’s time to fix this problem.”
Leaders of the Republican majority say they drew the districts in 2011, as required after every 10-year census, in an attempt to comply with the Voting Rights Act by ensuring African-Americans would be elected in certain districts. If they were sincere, they would accept the federal judgments that they erred and redraw the districts in a way that complies with the law. Instead, they will continue to resist a special election and get yet another year of legislating with an improperly seated majority.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the latter of whom oversaw saw the drawing of the maps along with former Sen. Bob Rucho, issued a joint statement Monday in which they had the chutzpa to call the lower court’s order for 2017 elections “politically motivated.” Indeed, what the court order is trying to do is remedy the politically motivated abuse of the redistricting process by Republican leaders in the General Assembly.
Of course, appealing to Republicans – or Democrats – to do what is fair in redistricting is a hopeless cause. Partisanship will always skew the maps. What is needed is an independent commission that can draw maps in a nonpartisan fashion. Should Democrats ever return to a majority in the General Assembly, perhaps the abuse they’ve suffered in this long redistricting fight will persuade them to give up the majority advantage of redistricting and instead put their trust in what Republicans have rejected – fair elections.