Commentary

Editorial neatly sums up NC’s absurd gerrymandering crisis

Be sure to check out this morning’s lead editorial on WRAL.com, “Voters lose, gerrymandering wins. It needs to stop.” Here’s an excerpt:

“Imagine buying seven apples and six oranges at the grocery store only to get home and discover the store decided you should have 10 apples and just three oranges.

That’s exactly what is happening to voters in North Carolina. Tuesday 49.7 percent of the state’s voters picked Democrats to send to the U.S. House of Representatives. But only three Democrats (23 percent) actually were elected.

It gets worse. Fifty-one percent of the voters picked Democrats to serve in the state Senate. How many won? Just 42 percent. So Republicans will hold 29 of 50 Senate seats. The same thing happened in the state House of Representatives. Republicans will hold 66 of the 120 seats even though 51 percent of the voters picked Democrats.

How can a majority of voters cast their ballots one way only to see the result be the opposite?”

After explaining that the answer is, of course, North Carolina’s absurdly gerrymandered districts, the editorial continues:

“The unfairness is to voters who expressed their will but see it subverted and ignored by those who are supposed to serve them. The result is an out-of-control legislative majority and leadership with a radical agenda that’s out of step with citizens’ views and desires. The evidence is overwhelming – highlighted by policy blunders like House Bill 2 and the two power-grab state Constitutional amendments voters just overwhelmingly rejected.

This is not a surprise. The courts have repeatedly ruled, since the districts were redrawn in 2012, that they are illegal – both because of racial discrimination and excessive partisanship.

North Carolina has suffered too long under laws passed by an illegally constituted legislature. North Carolina taxpayers have wasted millions in legal fees defending the indefensible.

Sixty-nine current and newly-elected legislators (44 Democrats and six Republicans in the state House and 19 Democratic state senators) have signed Common Cause’s ‘Fair Maps Pledge.’ In addition, eight Republicans were among the sponsors of a bill, that was never heard, to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

When legislators convene later this month, rather than looking to weaken Gov. Roy Cooper and further shore up their diminished authority, legislative leaders should openly discuss and have the General Assembly adopt an independent, nonpartisan process for congressional and legislative redistricting.

Get the job done. Make North Carolina elections fair again.”

Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

Damning new report: NC General Assembly is forcing state judges to “criminalize poverty”

A new report from the good people at the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund is shining new light on an important area in which the General Assembly has been doing its worst to attack and undermine the independence of the judiciary: the micromanagement of court fines and fees.

The report is entitled “Forcing Judges to Criminalize Poverty: Eroding Judicial Independence in North Carolina” and in it, authors Gene Nichol and Heather Hunt build on their past research efforts regarding the burdensome nature of court fines and fees for poor people. As Nichol and Hunt explain, state lawmakers have, through their repeated enactment of news laws in recent years limiting the ability of judges to use their discretion in meting out fines and fees, done great damage the basic concept of of an independent judiciary.

This is from the introduction:

In 2017, the legislature piled on. It amended the court fees law to prohibit any waiver unless “notice and opportunity to be heard” was presented to all government entities potentially receiving funds from court fees. The notice must proceed by first class mail, to apparently hundreds of agencies, at least 15 days prior to any granted waiver. It, too, is a first-in-the-nation hurdle — consuming court time and money and requiring secondary hearings. State judges reportedly believe the goal of the agency notice is to make “the process to waive a court fee so burdensome” that judges simply won’t bother — tightening the screws on judicial discretion. Early this year the waiver law was altered again, demanding that the AOC report annually to a legislative oversight committee “on the implementation of the notice … to government agencies” requirement.

We make the claim here that the mandated “shaming” report and the absurdly burdensome agency notice requirement unconstitutionally interfere with the independence and integrity of North Carolina courts. The Supreme Court of North Carolina, echoing the state constitution’s demand that “the legislative, executive and judicial powers be forever separate and distinct,” has held that the separation of powers principle is violated “when the actions of one branch prevent another branch from performing its constitutional duties.” The General Assembly has given North Carolina courts the power to waive most court-ordered fees under state law. Despite that grant of authority, the annual waiver report and the uselessly laborious agency notice requirement are designed to place a heavy (legislatively-crafted) thumb upon the scales of such judicial determinations. A legislature may grant courts jurisdiction to adjudicate various matters. It may not, having granted such authority, then attempt to compel judges to exercise that power in favor of (or against) a particular litigant. Doing so breaches the independence required by American courts. The breach is made even more worrisome when waiver is, in numerous instances, mandated by the United States Constitution….

Of course, the North Carolina General Assembly’s treatment of court fee waivers is hardly its only recent attack on the integrity and independence of the state court system. It has, in the past decade, ended public financing in judicial elections, re-introduced partisan judicial elections, curbed jurisdiction in constitutional challenges, intervened by statute to protect a Republican incumbent justice, manipulated the size of the court of appeals, eliminated judicial primaries, re-districted disfavored Wake and Mecklenburg county courts, moved to reduce gubernatorial appointments, sought to take over the judicial appointment process and threatened judges with the prospect of two year terms. The head of the Republican Party has threatened to impeach judges who rule against the party. So, for North Carolina legislators, interfering with the independence of courts is hardly foreign ground. The General Assembly’s anti-waiver scheme, however, marries two of the legislature’s principal themes of the last decade: attacking the independent functioning of the courts and crushing the prospects of low-income North Carolinians. It is unconstitutional to force judges to step on the necks of poor Tar Heels.

Click here to read and share the full report.

Commentary

Two amendments North Carolinians should have been voting on (and that would’ve pased)

North Carolina’s conservative legislative majorities would have never allowed it, but here are two constitutional amendments adopted by voters in other states this week that would have done vastly more for our state than the dreadful and deceptive proposals that appeared on our ballot:

#1 – A minimum wage hike – As the Economic Policy Institute reports:

…[V]oters in Missouri and Arkansas gave overwhelming approval to ballot measures that will raise their state’s minimum wage over the next several years, lifting pay for a combined 1 million workers. In Missouri, 62 percent of voters elected to raise the state minimum wage from its current $7.85 to $12 an hour in 2023. In Arkansas, 68 percent of voters supported a measure that will raise the state minimum wage to $11 per hour in 2021 from its current value of $8.50.

The increase in Arkansas will raise pay for an estimated 300,000 workers (about a quarter of the state’s wage-earning workforce). The Missouri increase will lift pay for 677,000 workers (also about a quarter of wage-earners in the state.) In both cases, the majority of workers who will get a raise are women, most work full time, and they come from families with modest incomes.

#2 – Nonpartisan redistricting to bring an end to gerrymandering – This is from Wired.com:

Americans remain sharply divided at the ballot box, from which political party they support to initiatives on issues like climate change. But they consistently voted against one thing on Tuesday: gerrymandering. In Michigan, Missouri, and Colorado, voters overwhelmingly passed ballot initiatives to put an end to this practice; as of Wednesday evening, another in Utah held onto a slight lead. They join another initiative passed in Ohio earlier this year.

These initiatives either set up independent redistricting commissions or vastly limit the ability of a single party to unilaterally draw the lines. That could dramatically change the electoral map when districts are redrawn in 2021 and, if it works as planned, could create more districts where voters get to choose their representatives—not the other way around.

Previous polls confirm that had such amendments appeared on the ballot here, both would have passed by a mile. As the composition of the General Assembly gradually and inexorably changes to genuinely reflect the voters of our state, let’s hope North Carolinians keep banging the drum for causes like this that would actually improve our state and the lives of our people.

Commentary

Gerrymandering: The wall that prevented a true Democratic victory

North Carolina Democrats made a lot of progress last night in winning back seats long held by Republicans, but there was one clear factor that prevented a sizable “blue wave” from truly transforming state politics: partisan gerrymandering. We’ve known for years that Republican majorities in the General Assembly and the state’s congressional delegation have far exceeded the size of their actual support in a closely divided “purple” state, but last night’s results really brought that fact home again.

This was most obvious in the state’s 13 congressional districts where the total vote was almost dead even, despite the presence of nine extremely well-funded Republican incumbents and one race — the third district — in which Democrats didn’t even field a candidate. In the 12 contested races, the vote total thus far shows Republicans winning 1,642,344 votes or about 48.5% while Democrats won 1,747,742 or around 51.5%. Yet, despite this impressive performance, Democrats only won three of the 12 seats.

I’ve yet to add up all of the numbers, but a preliminary glance at legislative races reveals what appears to be a similar pattern: Republicans will still enjoy sizable majorities almost exclusively because of partisan gerrymandering.

The bottom line: Gerrymandering continue to remain a toxic and dangerous plague upon our democracy. Its elimination (and the adoption of a nonpartisan redistricting system) must remain at the top of the policy priority list for all caring and thinking people.

Commentary, News

Preliminary election results reveal a modest blue wave in NC

There are still a lot of results yet to come in — slow vote counting in Wake County due to machine issues has been especially frustrating — but preliminary results indicate the following promising developments for Democrats:

  • The end of the Republican supermajority in the state House of Representatives appears all but assured. There is also a real chance that Democrats may also pick up enough state Senate seats to achieve a similar result in that body.
  • Two power-grabbing constitutional amendments that would have taken power from Governor Cooper and given it to legislative leaders have been soundly defeated.
  • The state Supreme Court will now enjoy a 5-2 Democratic majority with Anita Earls’ convincing victory.
  • Democratic members of Congress from North Carolina will be headed back to a U.S. House in which they will serve as members of the majority party.

Be sure to check back here and on the main Policy Watch site tomorrow morning for more details and analysis of tonight’s results.