Ned Barnett

In NC, Russians won’t find much democracy left to disrupt

Participants gather and listen to speakers before the Moral March on Raleigh in Raleigh, N.C. on Saturday, February 10, 2017. The theme of this year's march and rally was "Taking resistance to the ballot box." Speakers talked about the importance of voting and the dangers of gerrymandering among other topics.
Participants gather and listen to speakers before the Moral March on Raleigh in Raleigh, N.C. on Saturday, February 10, 2017. The theme of this year's march and rally was "Taking resistance to the ballot box." Speakers talked about the importance of voting and the dangers of gerrymandering among other topics. newsobserver.com

I know we’re supposed to be concerned that Russian operatives took actions in North Carolina when they tried to disrupt the 2016 presidential election. An indictment brought by special prosecutor Robert Mueller says the Russians instigated protests in Charlotte and posted falsehoods on social media to divide the public, undermine faith in the democratic process and discourage voting.

But anyone who’s paying attention to North Carolina politics knows that type of disruption here is hardly new nor foreign. The Russians are pikers in such pursuits compared to the Americans who run the state legislature. Potemkin protests or social media disinformation couldn’t create more chaos and distrust than what’s already been done by the majority that rules the General Assembly.

Since taking power in 2011, Republican lawmakers have upended democracy, discouraged voting and exploited social divisions. It started with gerrymandering so extreme that Democratic voters lost their voice in most of the state. Our congressional delegation swung from 7-6 Democratic to 10-3 Republican. In the state House and Senate, Republicans drew themselves into safe districts that are almost impregnable to the popular will.

From there, Republicans moved on to pass election law changes including a photo ID requirement for voters, reductions in early voting and limits on registration that sought to suppress African-American votes with what a federal court called “almost surgical precision.”

Voter fraud?

When gerrymandering was useless in blocking the statewide election of two Democrats – Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein – the state Republican Party claimed massive voter fraud. That didn’t exist, so Republican lawmakers tried to partially undo the election by stripping the office of the governor of some of its powers and slashing the budget of the attorney general’s office.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly’s leaders treat the legislative process with contempt. Bills are passed with sharply limited public hearings and sessions are called with mystery agendas. Bills are passed that contain a dog’s breakfast of unrelated issues. Major policy decisions are buried deep in budget bills.

If that’s not enough, Republicans have thrived on exacerbating divisions. They’ve pitted rural against urban interests, arrested more than 1,000 Moral Monday protesters, successfully proposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and passed House Bill 2, a law so discriminatory against transgender people that businesses and athletic leagues boycotted the state.

This has gone on amid constant litigation challenging the constitutionality of district maps and voting laws. Lawmakers have spent millions of taxpayer dollars defending and losing most of the lawsuits. In response, Republican leaders have dismissed federal courts with judges appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents as partisan while themselves adding partisan tags to state judicial races, removing public funding for judicial campaigns and proposing that judges stand for election every two years. The carping and challenging has shaken the public’s faith in an independent judiciary.

To get a sense of how thoroughly Republican lawmakers have discombobulated North Carolina democracy consider just the events of last week. This is the filing period for candidates, but challenges to gerrymandered districts make it uncertain where the shifting lines for state House and Senate will end up. Candidates don’t know where they’re running. Voters have lost track of what district they’re in. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling may also change congressional district lines.

Loss of trust

“I think it takes the most attentive of our citizenry to fully understand and realize what districts they may be in now. And even then, they’re probably confused,” provost and political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College told The Fayetteville Observer.

He added, “So the average voter may feel a sense of loss of trust, loss of knowledge. A loss of connection to their government just because they don’t know who their representative is now. That’s a dangerous thing for a democratic republic.”

Meanwhile back in court, a three-judge panel in Wake County heard arguments from Common Cause and other plaintiffs that laws passed during last December’s special session should be voided because the session was not legally convened. Plaintiffs argued that the session was called with two hours’ notice and no public agenda.

Plaintiff’s attorney Burton Craige told the court that Republican lawmakers “deliberately denied plaintiffs and other citizens their right to participate in the legislative process. This was legislation by ambush. This was a premeditated assault on democracy.”

Lawyers for the legislative leaders said the state Constitution does not require the leaders to tell the public why they’re holding a special session or to provide any notice about what they might vote on.

Russian trolls may as well move on from North Carolina. There’s not much democracy left to disrupt here.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com

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