Getting to the bottom of NC’s gerrymandering crisis

By: - February 21, 2017 5:00 am

Our gerrymandering crisis isn’t just philosophical – “politicians choosing voters instead of voters choosing politicians.” Rather, it’s practical – gerrymandering is election rigging; certain votes “count” more than others through gerrymandering. That’s because the value of a vote lies not in the mere ritual of casting it, but in the equal opportunity for each vote to confer political power. The principle “one person, one vote” encapsulates democracy’s central promise of equality at the polls.

We all agree: a male vote shouldn’t count more than a female vote, a rich vote shouldn’t count more than a poor vote, and a white person’s vote shouldn’t count more than a black person’s vote. The ballot box is the great American equalizer. We’ve come a long way to get here: eliminating poll taxes, literacy tests, and property requirements, and the hard-fought advent of both women’s suffrage through the 19th Amendment and voting rights for African-Americans through the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But the veiled evil of gerrymandering is that it rejects this basic American promise. Through gerrymandering, a Democratic vote for legislators in North Carolina doesn’t have the same equal opportunity to confer political power as a Republican vote; it “counts” less where half the votes (Republican) seize 2/3 of the seats while the other half (Democratic) only get 1/3.

That was the effect of North Carolina’s 2011 gerrymandering, which has rigged the legislative elections of 2012, 2014, 2016, and counting: half the voters elected two-thirds of our state legislature in 2012, giving Republicans the veto-proof supermajority they wield today. Republicans seized over a third of the state Senate seats in unopposed races. A federal court panel unanimously found that nine Senate and 19 House districts were unconstitutional race-based gerrymanders; the legislature packed black voters into districts to eliminate their impact in the “bleached” adjoining Republican districts. It was even worse in the U.S. House of Representatives races; despite 81,190 more Democratic votes than Republican votes, Republicans captured 69% of those seats.

We are not living up to the principle of “one person, one vote.” Far from it. The Election Integrity Project recently reported that North Carolina was not only the worst state in America for unfair districting, but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Project (which analyzed places like Cuba, Sierra Leone, Venezuela, Burma, and Sudan).

And deliberately using race as a predominating factor in gerrymandering only adds to its odious nature, with unconstitutional race-based districts snaking through neighboring “bleached” districts. Indeed, discounting voting power based on race stirs distant memories of a more pernicious race-based calculus: The 3/5 Compromise, whereby Southern black slaves amounted to only 3/5 of a person for legislative apportionment. The long shadow of that perverse discriminatory calculus casts a pall over our race-based gerrymandering: a vote in a packed black district is effectively worth a fraction of a vote in a neighboring “bleached” district.

This shameful legacy, coupled with Jim Crow and present-day Republican voter suppression efforts targeting black voters, should alarm any fair-minded citizen. And yet, our Republican leaders celebrate what they see as the “victory” of their vote control. As Representative David Lewis, Republican and chairman of the redistricting committee, candidly admitted, “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map in a way to help foster what I think is best for the country.” In other words, because Lewis disagrees with someone politically, he decided that person’s vote should count less – HE decides how much YOUR vote counts, based on whether he likes your political views. And the NC Republican Party openly celebrated suppressed black voter turnout in the most recent election, gloating on election eve that black early voter turnout was down while white early voter turnout was up – trumpeting it as the crumbling of Obama’s North Carolina coalition.

This isn’t principled leadership; it’s a betrayal of trust. Stripped bare of political rationalizations and their Machiavellian justifications, in clear and simple terms North Carolina’s Republican leaders are afraid of a fair fight, preferring instead the political sucker punch of gerrymandering. And even with their thumbs heavy on the scale of our democracy, they shrink from open deliberation and debate, choosing instead the craven tactics of hurried special legislative sessions, surprise agendas, last-minute bills, closed-door meetings, late-night floor votes, and strong-arm parliamentary maneuvering to suppress floor debate and foreclose even the possibility of political compromise. These aren’t North Carolina values. This isn’t how we treat our friends and neighbors. It’s shameful, and our state deserves better.

Steven K. McCallister is an attorney in Raleigh, NC.

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