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Editorial pages and good government advocates are weighing in this morning in praise of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to send North Carolina’s gerrymandered legislative maps back to the state Supreme Court for further review. This morning’s Fayetteville Observer calls the decision a “setback” for gerrymandering and concludes this way:

“We don’t know how this will be settled, but it reminds us that the creation of a nonpartisan redistricting commission is the real solution that we need.”

Meanwhile, Raleigh’s News & Observer terms the ruling a “voter victory.” It also notes that:

“Redrawing legislative and congressional districts is a task that ruling parties take on after a census. It’s true, as Republicans have claimed, that Democrats drew districts to their advantage when they were in power, but they did not go to the extremes the GOP did.

Think of how much time and trouble and money the state could save if it established a bipartisan commission to draw districts every 10 years. But don’t expect that to happen while Republicans continue to enjoy being in power after 100 years out of it.”

And for more details on how a nonpartisan solution is within easy reach of the General Assembly, turn over to the right side of the N&O editorial section and read this op-ed by Common Cause board member and retired N.C. State professor Larry King in which he explains how GOP lawmakers like Representatives David Lewis and Bert Jones have done one of the all-time flip flops on the issue. As King explains:

“Republican Party leaders need to let the democratic process play out. This is legislation they have long championed. North Carolina Republicans remember all too well how frustrating it was when their voices weren’t heard because of gerrymandered districts. Redistricting reform ensures this never happens again. It’s time to end gerrymandering once and for all in North Carolina, and it starts with letting H92 be heard in committee.

The residents of North Carolina deserve no less.”

Commentary

redistricting_mapMicah Khater, a previous contributor to N.C. Policy Watch and a Caldwell Fellow in the University Honors Program at N.C. State University majoring in History and French, recently authored the following interesting essay on the efforts of state lawmakers to impose new electoral maps in Wake and Guilford Counties:

Echoes of North Carolina’s dark past
By Micah Khater

Our politicians often try to resurrect images of the past in order to justify present decisions. For many, history can have a political purpose: it can be used to uphold conservative ideals of American tradition while omitting the imperfections of our past. But this version of history is fraught with errors and grossly oversimplified. If we submit to the desires of those who wish to erase the flaws of our history, we will lose the hindsight necessary to fully evaluate present public policy.

As I was listening to the recent controversy over the General Assembly’s proposal to redistrict the Wake County Commission and Greensboro City Council, I found myself reflecting on a story that sounded eerily similar.

It was 1934. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the midst of enacting major legislation as a part of his New Deal. White Democrats maintained a choke-hold on the South. It’s important to remember that “Democrats” and “Republicans” of the early Twentieth Century were not what they are today. Although FDR was a Democrat, and often strived to appeal to southern lawmakers, his New Deal legislation threatened the racial and economic hierarchy enforced by the Democratic Party of the South. Anxieties ran high among North Carolina Democrats who worried that the New Deal might accelerate labor movements. Even though they singlehandedly controlled all state-level politics, the Democrats worried about a few renegade counties in the western part of North Carolina.

Wilkes County was one of those Republican strongholds. There were only a handful of counties in the western part of the state, like Wilkes, that had not yet disenfranchised African American voters, most likely because of their historic support for the GOP in a Democratic-majority state. Read More

Commentary
Gerrymandering

Image: Southern Coalition for Social Justice

In case you missed it, the U.S. Supreme Court took actually issued a promising 5-4 ruling yesterday in the challenge to Alabama’s racially gerrymandered redistricting plan.

Moreover, as the good folks at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice explain in the statement below, the decision could have a significant and positive impact in the challenge to the unconstitutional “Rucho plan” now in effect in North Carolina:

“U.S. SUPREME COURT’S DECISION IN ALABAMA REDISTRICTING CASE HAS IMPLICATIONS FOR NORTH CAROLINA’S REDISTRICTING PLANS

In a win for voting rights advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court today put the brakes on using explicit racial criteria in redistricting. The 5 to 4 decision constrained the cynical use of the Voting Rights Act to justify race-based redistricting that minimizes the voting strength of minority voters—a strategy employed by several Southern states in the 2010 redistricting cycle.

The Court ruled that race predominated in the Alabama legislature’s redistricting of state house and senate districts when it moved black voters into majority-minority districts in order to prevent the percentage of minority voters from declining. Read More

Commentary

redistricting_mapWell, that didn’t take long. When Democrats swept the Wake County Board of Commissioners in last fall’s election, more than one wag opined that it wouldn’t take long before the GOP-dominated General Assembly would find a way to abolish the Board.

Things haven’t gone that far…yet. But as we’ve found out in the last 48 hours, conservative leaders in the state Senate have no plans to be shy in altering local election results that displease them.

On Thursday, the Senate  Redistricting Committee examined a pair of bills to alter the way voters elect county commissioners in Wake County and city council members in Greensboro. The Wake County bill was considered just a day after it was introduced.

Let’s hope the overwhelmingly negative response the bills have spurred from the public cause the senators to think twice. As the Greensboro News & Record noted in an editorial blasting the bill impacting Greensboro yesterday, even Gov. McCrory is sending signal that the bills go too far:

“The idea that the state should dictate Greensboro’s local governing structure contradicts the leeway granted by law to all other cities and counties.

While not referring specifically to Wade’s proposal, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory expressed an important principle Tuesday:

‘Let me put it this way: As governor I constantly have to fight Washington not to interfere. I think the same philosophy applies to Raleigh interfering with local governments.’

Members of the Senate Redistricting Committee, most of them Republicans and none of whom represents any part of Guilford County, should keep that principle in mind when Wade asks them to approve her bill today.”

Unfortunately, if past performance is any indication, Senate conservatives have little interest in principle when it comes to redistricting (or the Governor when it comes to just about anything).

The Committee plans to vote on the matters next Tuesday. It’s unclear at this point whether additional public testimony will be allowed. For Wake County residents, the legislative delegation from Wake will apparently have an open meeting on Monday at 3:00 pm in Room 1124 of the Legislative Building.

News

Supreme courtThe U.S. Supreme Court is hearing argument today in a redistricting dispute out of Arizona that could bear directly on North Carolina voters.

In the case, aptly captioned Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commissionthe state legislature sued an independent redistricting commission approved by voters in 2000 to draw state and congressional voting lines.

The lawmakers contend that the delegation of that responsibility from them to the commission violates the Election Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for . . . Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.”

SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe has more on the legal arguments in the case here, but of more import to North Carolina voters is the impact the court’s decision may have on developing efforts to reform the redistricting process here.

Two bills are now pending in the General Assembly that would change the overtly partisan nature of drawing voting lines in North Carolina.

House Bill 92, sponsored by Rep. “Skip” Stam and others, calls for a more bipartisan approach to map-drawing but keeps ultimate approval authority with lawmakers.

House Bill 49 on the other hand — sponsored by Rep. Charles Jeter and others —  delegates the map-drawing to an independent commission, which then presents three plans from which lawmakers can choose. If they don’t agree on a plan within a set period of time, the commission itself picks the redistricting plan that becomes state law.

The latter bill, which would require a constitutional amendment, is more like the Arizona law before the nation’s highest court, except that it still rests ultimate approval with the lawmakers — absent their failure to act.

But even that degree of delegation may be at risk, depending on how the Supreme Court rules.

As the Brennan Center for Justice points out here:

If the Supreme Court were to conclude that the Elections Clause prohibits citizen efforts to take the power to redistrict away from elected politicians, the decision could have far-reaching ramifications. A growing number of states in recent years, including California, have given independent commissions the power to set the boundaries of their congressional districts. In fact, almost half of the states now use redistricting commissions in some form, including as a backup if the legislature is unable to pass a redistricting plan. Efforts to adopt similar sorts of reforms are currently underway in Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin – with Arizona and California frequently serving as models for proposed reforms.