Commentary

Veteran journalist: What NC’s gerrymandering case means

Hedrick Smith

NC gerrymandering under siege
(Cross-posted from ReclaimtheAmericanDream.org)

The moment of truth has come for North Carolina, which epitomizes the nation’s mounting struggle over the partisan rigging of elections by Republican or Democratic majorities in state legislatures gerrymandering election districts to maintain their party’s lock on power.

Fifteen states have adopted some kind of reform to make the drawing of election maps fairer or more bipartisan, most recently Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah. But North Carolina, like Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Virginia, has steadfastly clung to the old game of politicians manipulating election maps to keep their party and themselves in power.

In North Carolina, reformers have challenged the Republican legislative leadership in no fewer than seven different lawsuits. In response, federal courts have ordered two congressional districts and 28 legislative districts redrawn to correct for what the courts decided were illegal, racially discriminatory maps imposed by the Republican-led legislature in 2011.

The big issue now is partisan gerrymandering – whether the maps for North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts have been unconstitutionally stacked to favor the Republican slate statewide. A three-judge federal court has already condemned the legislature for drawing maps ”with invidious partisan intent” and thrown out those maps. Now the case, brought by the public interest group Common Cause, goes before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Whether it is Democrats or Republicans manipulating election maps, gerrymanders cheat voters out of true representation,” asserts Karen Hobert Flynn, national president of Common Cause. “The Supreme Court has the opportunity to set a clear standard that will restore a meaningful vote to millions of Americans disenfranchised by gerrymanders in North Carolina, Maryland and across the country.

Reform or tactical ploy?

A parallel suit is working its way through the North Carolina state courts. Filed by Common Cause and the North Carolina Democratic Party, it also accuses the Republican-dominated legislature of illegally drawing the boundaries of state legislative districts to favor Republicans.

Equally striking, broad bipartisan coalitions have just recently sponsored bills into the General Assembly to reform how North Carolina will draw its election districts in the future. The most far-reaching calls for establishing a tripartite commission – Republicans, Democrats and independents – to take over drawing election maps in 2021. It would bar any plan designed “for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent legislator or Congress member” or based on the use of political or election data in drafting the plan – key ingredients for rigging election maps.

Such bills have surfaced in years past and gone nowhere. What makes this year different is that already, more than half of the 120 members of the lower house have signed on as co-sponsors of the two reform bills, Republicans as well as Democrats. So if a vote were taken, presumably one of those reform bills would pass.

What is impossible to tell, reform advocates say, is whether Republican lawmakers are co-sponsoring reform bills because they fear eventual defeat in the courts and in elections and want to have a hand in drafting new reform laws, or whether the reform bills are simply a tactical ploy that will be buried in committee by the GOP leadership if the Supreme Court allows the current GOP-gerrymandered system to stand.

One potential cloud is the outspoken opposition to reforms from long-time Senate GOP leader Phil Berger who has castigated the state lawsuit against gerrymandering of legislative districts. “This isn’t about good government – it’s about power,” declared Berger’s spokesman Pat Ryan. “This suit is a corrupt attempt at judicial gerrymandering, hoping the liberal state (supreme) court will rewrite the constitution and draw maps favorable to Democrats.”

GOP admits it did partisan gerrymandering

What is indisputable, however, is the frank admission of partisan gerrymandering by Republican leaders like Rep. David Lewis, chairman of the legislature’s redistricting committee. Lewis has admitted drawing district lines to deliver Republicans a 10-3 majority in the state’s Congressional delegation even when Democratic candidates poll more votes, as happened in 2012 and again in 2018.

“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats, So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country,” Lewis said in 2016. “I propose(d) that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

In fact, last November, Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives won 50.8% of the popular vote for Congress versus 47.8% for Republicans, but Republicans garnered 77% of the state’s congressional seats, and Democrats only got 23%. Since the election, one Republican victory was thrown out by the state election board which found fraudulent absentee ballot manipulation by Republican campaign workers. Five were charged with violating state election laws and a new election was ordered.

The chief justice as pivotal vote

At the U.S. Supreme Court, the North Carolina gerrymander lawsuit is a test case that could bring a landmark ruling with broad ramifications across the country. Several times, the high court has tiptoed up to a pivotal decision on partisan gerrymandering. But the justices have repeatedly backed off, stating that while partisan gerrymandering seems unconstitutional, they have a hard time clearly defining a standard for measuring it.

Typical was the court’s response in October 2017 to a gerrymander case brought by Democratic voters in Wisconsin. Chief Justice John Roberts, potentially the decisive vote in the North Carolina case, worried aloud that if the court were to decide against the Republican gerrymander in Wisconsin, the justices might be seen as deciding elections in favor of Democrats.

But since then, Justice Roberts has arranged the court’s schedule to pair the North Carolina case, brought on behalf of Democratic voters, with a case from Maryland, brought by Republican voters against Maryland’s Democratic legislature. What has heightened expectations in North Carolina and a bevy of other states is the possibility that a Supreme Court majority, led by justice Roberts, will seize the opportunity to come down hard and even-handedly on both parties, and then issue its first breakthrough decision outlawing partisan gerrymandering.

Hedrick Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter and Emmy award-winning documentary producer for PBS and PBS FRONTLINE. Over five decades as a reporter, editor, producer and author, Smith has established himself as one of America’s premier journalists.

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