Liberty, equality and democracy are under siege in North Carolina

By: - March 17, 2017 10:52 am

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore recently spoke out against non-partisan redistricting, suggesting that if we are unhappy with our legislators we can just vote them out. Aside from the absurdity of suggesting that the solution to rigged elections is more rigged elections, what is most remarkable is that Moore himself sponsored non-partisan redistricting bills four times in the past, including a bill to amend the North Carolina Constitution – an extraordinary testament to the need for redistricting reform.

That need hasn’t changed since Moore changed his mind; in fact, it has only become more pressing. Moore’s flip-flopping is echoed by the conservative Civitas Institute’s recent reversal on the issue; it likewise now suggests that if voters don’t like gerrymandering, they can just hold legislators accountable at the ballot box.

But these hollow appeals to voters holding legislators accountable are belied by the reality of gerrymandering, which insures that we citizens can’t vote them out. They’ve rigged the elections – that’s the whole point of gerrymandering. Those who support gerrymandering have only one justification: clinging to power. But that short-term goal comes at the long-term expense of our core American values:  democracy, liberty and equality.

Liberty is freedom of choice and freedom from arbitrary control. But do we have freedom of choice at the polls where, because of gerrymandering, 40% of our legislative races are uncontested? One candidate to “choose” from isn’t freedom of choice. And because of gerrymandering, even where races are “contested,” opponents usually have no chance of winning – in 90% of the 2016 races there was a 10% or greater margin of victory; electoral blowouts where our “choice” of candidates is illusory.

Do we have freedom from arbitrary control where, because of gerrymandering, only half of the voters are able to enjoy a veto-proof Republican supermajority in our legislature that is structurally locked in until after the next redistricting in 2021; where incumbency rates exceed 90% because legislators are safe from election challenges in their gerrymandered districts? Legislators can do what they want and we can’t vote them out. Our legislators no longer answer to the people because the people don’t choose them; they choose us. That isn’t liberty.

Equality recognizes the essential sameness of people, where we all enjoy the same rights. But do we have equality where, because of gerrymandering, people’s votes “count” differently depending on their political party or their race; where, by gerrymandered design, half of the voters get an artificial legislative supermajority while the other half get a powerless view from the cheap seats; where black voters get packed into racially gerrymandered districts – political ghettos designed to dilute the impact of their votes? That isn’t equality.

Democracy requires both liberty and equality; it is meaningless without them. Our core democratic principles are found in the North Carolina Constitution: “All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.” To remind elected officials of this truth – that they are beholden to the people – James Madison counseled us more than 200 years ago in The Federalist Papers that “the restraint of frequent elections” was necessary to:

“support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people. Before the sentiments impressed on their minds by the mode of their elevation can be effaced by the exercise of power, they will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised.”

But do we have democracy – and the necessary “restraint of elections” – where voters are denied liberty and equality at the polls; where the legislature’s political power is derived not from the expressed will of the people, but rather, from gerrymandered maps drawn by the politicians for the politicians who stack the deck to keep themselves in office? Gerrymandering undermines liberty, equality, and democracy.

But we can reclaim our democracy. There is a pending bipartisan bill to end gerrymandering and create a non-partisan redistricting commission: HB 200. Eight Republicans have reached across the aisle and are joined by a number of Democrats. There is also a companion bill in the Senate: SB 209. And there has been an unprecedented outpouring of public support to end gerrymandering, to include a broad coalition of citizens, organizations, judges, academics, civic leaders, and business owners. We need to end gerrymandering now, and these bills need to be passed.

Steven K. McCallister is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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