Thanks to gerrymandering, the policy stakes in this fall’s elections in NC are much bigger than they ought to be

By: - October 11, 2022 6:00 am

North Carolina is a deeply “purple” state. That is to say it’s one where statewide elections between Republicans and Democrats tend to be very close.

A classic example: The 2020 contest for state Supreme Court chief justice in which the incumbent Cheri Beasley (the current Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate) lost to Republican challenger Paul Newby (then an associate justice on the court) by 0.00007% — just 401 votes out of the almost 5.4 million cast.

Interestingly, Beasley’s Senate race seems as if it could be headed for a similar, razor-thin outcome as polls continue to show her and GOP nominee Ted Budd locked in a virtual tie.

Voter registration numbers also reflect this narrow divide. As of Oct. 8, the state had just 2,494,652 registered Democrats, 2,218,884 registered Republicans and 2,625,441 who were unaffiliated.

In such a evenly divided state, it would seem safe to assume that the partisan composition of the groups of lawmakers elected to the state’s General Assembly and congressional delegation might largely reflect that close split.

There are 120 members of the state House, 50 in the state Senate and, thanks to an addition courtesy of the most recent census, there will soon be 14 in the state’s delegation in the US House.

So, assuming the presence of reasonably fair electoral maps, common sense would predict something close to a 60-60 divide in the state House, 25-25 in the Senate and 7-7 in the newly expanded congressional delegation.

As you are probably aware, however, such an outcome is, and has long been, virtually impossible. Thanks to aggressive partisan gerrymandering by the Republicans who control the configuration of electoral districts (North Carolina is a state in which the governor has no role in map drawing) each of these three groups has leaned heavily Republican for years and will almost assuredly continue to do after this year’s election.

At present, the GOP controls 69 out of 120 state House seats (58%), 28 out of 50 Senate seats (56%), and eight out of 13 US House seats (62%).

And at least at the state legislative level, the gerrymandering has a massive impact. Instead of what one might expect in such a 50-50 state (i.e., a legislature prone to compromise, or at the least, frequent stalemate) Republicans dominate.

Republican leaders commonly draft the most important bills the legislature considers — like the state budget — behind closed doors and then frequently limit debate and prevent the consideration of amendments. For the most part, Democratic members can’t get the bills they propose even considered, and often they know little more than the general public about when legislative sessions will happen and what topics will be debated and discussed.

Given this backdrop and the massive impact that gerrymandering has on state policy, it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of this fall’s legislative elections.

Because of partisan gerrymandering, the question this fall is not whether the ebbs and flows of politics, voter turnout, and the news cycle will cause the state legislature to swing slightly Republican or slightly Democratic; it is whether those factors will lead to massive Republican supermajorities or merely ones akin to those they currently enjoy.

If the GOP somehow manages to acquire three-fifths supermajorities in both houses by adding just two seats in the Senate and three in the House, its members will be able to override any vetoes issued by Gov. Roy Cooper and thereby completely control state lawmaking.

This means that North Carolina could quickly shift from being a state in which abortion care remains safe, legal, and pretty widely available – both to pregnant North Carolinians and those from nearby states like Georgia and Tennessee where such care is completely banned – to one in which it is punishable as a crime.

It means that modest remaining state controls over firearms will likely be repealed.

It means that efforts to further micromanage public school teachers over issues like race and U.S. history, and to further expand school privatization, will likely become law.

It means that local sheriffs will likely be required – even where they object – to become more actively involved in the immigration enforcement business.

It means that new efforts to limit the rights of transgender people will likely find their way into state law.

It means that efforts to limit carbon pollution likely be stymied.

It means there will likely be even less oversight over the already opaque state budget writing process.

And if the state Supreme Court shifts from the current narrow 4-3 Democratic majority to GOP control, it means that all manner of new and dramatic changes subject to constitutional review will soon be wending their way through the judiciary in search of approval from a new and conservative high court majority. And this will almost certainly include a new round of even more gerrymandered legislative and congressional maps.

The bottom line: Almost all elections are important, but thanks to years of gerrymandering, the stakes in this fall’s legislative contests in North Carolina are enormous and, for better or worse, a lot bigger than they ought to be.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.