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GerrymanderingIn case you missed it, Raleigh’s News & Observer is featuring an essay by one of the nation’s founding fathers today that highlights the sorry state of politics in 21st Century North Carolina.

As Elbridge Gerry — the man for whom gerrymandering was named — informs us:

“A short while ago, I read that most legislative districts in North Carolina were not even competitive, with nearly half of your General Assembly races having just one candidate on the ballot last year – effectively deciding the election before a single vote was cast. Sadly, the prime culprit depriving you of a choice at the ballot box is gerrymandering.

As someone who risked his life to establish American democracy, I must say that this is appalling. We fought our revolution for the right to decide our own fate, for the right to vote for our leaders. Now other Americans, from both political parties, are trying to take it all away.

I was really depressed when I realized this and was feeling more than a bit guilty for my role in pioneering such tactics, but lately I have seen some signs that gerrymandering may be waning.

Twenty-one states have taken the power of redistricting out of the hands of politicians and given it to independent commissions…

And about two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court – one of our better creations when we wrote the Constitution – upheld the right of states to create these independent redistricting commissions. Justice Ginsberg got it right when she said ‘the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government.’

Also good news is that the U.S. Supreme Court told Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina that they needed to take another look at the way they did redistricting in the last round. They ordered Alabama to redo its map drawing and another court told Virginia to redo theirs. North Carolina is still up in the air.”

The bottom line: If even the man for whom gerrymandering was named can endorse a better path forward, surely Senator Phil Berger — the man responsible for the current mess in North Carolina — can do so. Come on Phil, don’t wait 203 years to admit your error.

News
Credit: Governing magazine.

Credit: Governing magazine.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled today that congressional districts redrawn by the Republican-controlled legislature violated a voter-approved constitutional amendment requiring nonpartisan map-drawing, and sent the voting maps back for a do-over.

It’s an important decision for Florida voters, who’d made clear their distaste of politicized redistricting by approving the amendment.

North Carolina, of course, has no such prohibition on partisan gerrymandering, and lawmakers in 2011 redrew congressional districts that left the state — which had a House vote that was 51 percent Democratic, 49 percent Republican — with a delegation of four Democrats and nine Republicans.

The Florida decision has little bearing on the redistricting process as it stands right now in North Carolina, but  it does offer lawmakers and voters lessons on the transparency that should underlie the process.

The Florida courts in League of Women Voters v. Detzner had the benefit of emails and other communications between lawmakers, staff and consultants which established that lawmakers had acted with improper intent in drawing maps for partisan advantage.

In the redistricting case pending here, the North Carolina Supreme Court denied requests for the disclosure of such communications — sent indirectly to involved parties through attorneys for the lawmakers — citing privilege.

And the Florida courts emphasized the need for transparency at all phases of the redistricting process, with the Supreme Court demanding as much in its order:

First, in order to avoid the problems apparent in this case as a result of many critical decisions on where to draw the lines having been made outside of public view, we encourage the Legislature to conduct all meetings in which it makes decisions on the new map in public and to record any non-public meetings for preservation.

Second, the Legislature should provide a mechanism for the challengers and others to submit alternative maps and any testimony regarding those maps for consideration and should allow debate on the merits of the alternative maps. The Legislature should also offer an opportunity for citizens to review and offer feedback regarding any proposed legislative map before the map is finalized.

Third, the Legislature should preserve all e-mails and documents related to the redrawing of the map. In order to avoid additional, protracted discovery and litigation, the Legislature should also provide a copy of those documents to the challengers upon proper request.

Finally, we encourage the Legislature to publicly document the justifications for its chosen configurations. That will assist this Court in fulfilling its own solemn obligation to ensure compliance with the Florida Constitution in this unique context, where the trial court found the Legislature to have violated the constitutional standards during the 2012 redistricting process.

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Commentary

Editorial writers have penned several good ones across North Carolina in recent days.

This morning’s Winston-Salem Journal is on the mark when it reminds the state Senate that driver’s education should remain in the public schools. As the editorial notes: “It’s not just a matter of money, but of public safety.”

In an editorial entitled “There’s a better way than political gerrymandering,” the Fayetteville Observer says this:

“In one of its final decisions before ending its term this week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s use of an independent commission to draw congressional districts.

We hope the leaders of the N.C. Senate took note. The decision gives them one less reason to resist a bipartisan initiative to create a redistricting commission here.”

An editorial in Raleigh’s N&O comments on native daughter Loretta Lynch’s return to the state yesterday by noting her sterling qualifications to be the nation’s new Attorney General and blasting the GOP Senators who filibustered her nomination:

“Disgracefully, both of North Carolina’s Republican U.S. senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, opposed Lynch’s nomination on thin and blatantly partisan grounds. They embarrassed themselves more than they did Lynch, and Tillis as a freshman failed the political character test.”

The Charlotte Observer expounds thoughtfully on “Three more Supreme Court decisions that could – and should – have an impact on North Carolina.”

And, finally, in case you missed it, a Tuesday editorial in the Asheville Citizen-Times gets it right with this take on the Affordable Care Act:

“The Affordable Care Act is here to stay. It’s time for critics to stop trying to repeal it and start trying to improve it.

The Supreme Court put the final nail in the repeal-ACA coffin last week when it upheld health-care subsidies in states that have not set up their own insurance exchanges. By a 6-3 vote the justices recognized a drafting error for what it was and rejected the notion that Congress would have deliberately written a law to guarantee it would not work….

The ACA is not perfect. The unwieldy law is too complicated for many Americans and it faced an embarrassingly rocky rollout as thousands were unable to access the website. Its effect on the labor force is yet to be fully ascertained, but there’s always the threat of reduced employee hours and a smaller workforce if people don’t need a job for benefits.

We’re all up for discussing ways to improve the ACA. But the opposition is going to have to bring concrete solutions to the table to build off of the plan instead of continuing to face a fruitless battle to tear it down.”

Commentary

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