I’ve rarely been deemed naïve. Still, I had some misplaced hope that North Carolina Republicans might abandon their decade-long quest to be seen as the stoutest anti-equality legislature in the country.
After all, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin have, of late, shown ample oppression chops. And much as I hate to admit it, it’s not clear Republicans have to maintain a democracy-crushing death grip on the North Carolina electoral process to hold onto legislative ascendancy. So maybe, at some point, it occurred to me, N.C. Republicans won’t believe that cheating must provide the beating heart of the party’s political agenda.
But then I saw the new redistricting maps. As I said, naïve.
As The New York Times put it, after being forced by courts to repeatedly redraw districts because of grotesque gerrymandering schemes, Tar Heel Republicans “reverted to their old strategies” enacting maps to give “the party a 64-56 edge in the State House and 32-18 advantage in the State Senate” if the statewide vote is split 50-50. And a state that Joe Biden lost by 1.3 percentage points now sports a congressional map that “creates 10 Republican seats, three Democratic ones, and one competitive” district. FiveThirtyEight reported Democrats “would have to win North Carolina by 11.4 points to [secure] half the congressional seats.” Common Cause said a quarter of the 36 state legislative seats held by African-Americans, all Democrats, will now likely flip to Republicans.
Stacey Abrams pronounced our gerrymanders, again, among the most “egregious” in the country – concluding Republicans here “must like going to court.” Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tar Heel “politicians placed their interests above the people.”
The tug of the stacked deck pulls hard. Especially when you’ve become such accomplished deck stackers. The goal is to amass supermajorities so substantial that a governor’s vetoes can be overridden and reduce competition so profoundly that a party’s authority becomes permanently entrenched. Michael Li of the Brennan Center wrote: “Republicans are more aggressive in states like Ohio and North Carolina … daring the courts to strike (plans) down.” The war on democracy has many fronts. But nothing has done more to crush equal political opportunity than the self-dealing of fraudulently altered legislative districts. It’s the democratic wound that keeps on giving. The best way to debase the right to vote is to make sure the exercise of the franchise doesn’t really matter.
So, yet again, the stage is set. Republican lawmakers have thrown down the gauntlet. Cheating, as the Stones used to say, “like I don’t know how.” Now come the cases. Lots of them. For months, or years, or, more likely, another decade. Tens of millions of dollars. Years of confusion. Stops and starts. Findings of transgression. Heated recriminations. Allegations of abuse of power – from this side and that. The North Carolina way.
But this time the forum shifts. Behaving like a caucus of the Republican Party, John Roberts and his cohort have gutted the Voting Rights Act and embraced the partisan gerrymander – thus removing federal courts from one of their most defining functions. State trial court decisions from 2019 make it clear this year’s entire redistricting package, state and federal, violates the North Carolina constitution – though a preliminary trial court ruling last Friday (subsequently blocked by the court of appeals) seemed to reject the standard. No doubt he North Carolina Supreme Court will be required to enter the fray.
I’m guessing the four Democratic members of our divided high court would prefer to let this bitter cup pass them by. No one wants a fight with a bully. And it’s a heavy burden to charge four folks with saving democracy. But it can be hard to look yourself in the mirror after betraying the constitution.
Contributing columnist Gene Nichol is a law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.