From gerrymandered maps, to conflicting COVID-19 messages, to I-95 purgatory: The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

In this issue:

1. Panel of judges says new redistricting plans do not violate the NC constitution

Maps for new congressional and legislative districts do not violate the state constitution and can be used in the next election, a three-judge panel said in a decision Tuesday that will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The NC League of Conservation Voters, Common Cause, the state NAACP, and voters backed by the National Redistricting Foundation challenged the maps, saying they are extreme partisan gerrymanders that dilute Black voters’ power. The three cases have been consolidated.

The same three-judge panel last year dismissed or ruled against these lawsuits.

The state Supreme Court granted the challengers’ requests for expediated appeals. The Supreme Court halted candidate filing for the 2022 primaries, and moved the primaries from March 8 to May 17.[Read more…]

2. Gerrymandering and its impact on the legitimacy of our democracy

This week saw the beginning of another season in North Carolina: redistricting lawsuit season.

Experienced followers of North Carolina politics expect it; it is every bit as reliable—maybe more so these days—than the shift from fall to winter. For those new to the state, prepare yourselves for stormy political weather. Cries of racial discrimination will be met with oaths of racial blindness. Courts for the coming decade will be filled with graphs and maps and explanations of modeling algorithms, while lawyers debate the legality of newly approved legislative and congressional district maps. As political science professors, and as engaged citizens, we feel that the public and courtroom debate over the legality of the maps has distracted us from a more fundamental concern: gerrymandering’s impact on the legitimacy of our democracy.

The distinction between legality and legitimacy is key. Legitimacy concerns adherence to objective or widely-held normative values and principles. In the United States, we judge the legitimacy of laws based on how well they conform to fundamental principles of American political morality: equality, the security of rights (including for those in the minority), and the sovereignty of the people.[Read more...]

3. Election experts: Still more to be done on state, federal elections before 2022 midterms

A panel of experts on election security hosted a conversation on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. Their goal was to provide an update on how election security had been updated or improved since the 2020 election.

But really, their hope was to not let history repeat itself.

The four spoke about what needs to be done to continue safeguarding elections in 2022 and beyond as part of the National Task Force On Election Crises.

The question of whether 2022 will be better off than the rocky 2020 election period remains to be seen, but panelists discussed a number of positive issues, as well as a range of concerns: from disinformation by Russia and China to chain-of-custody issues regarding ballots. [Read more...]

4. At Appalachian State, students whipsawed over conflicting COVID-19 messages from faculty, administration

Students at Appalachian State University in Boone are getting conflicting messages from faculty and administrators as tensions over the university’s handling of COVID-19 in the spring semester boil over.

In an open letter to students sent Sunday evening, Richard Rheingans, a professor in the Department of Sustainable Development, wrote the university is “failing to provide the leadership, guidance and support that students, faculty and the broader community needs.”

Rheingans, a former health economist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who spent more than two decades teaching in schools of public health, said the university isn’t taking the necessary steps to protect students, faculty and staff on campus.

“In so many ways, the Appalachian State administration has failed us throughout this pandemic and now, despite a month of warning that we would face another major covid surge, they have done virtually nothing to set us up for a safe, undisrupted semester,” Rheingans wrote. [Read more...]

5. Air testing planned for neighborhood adjacent to contaminated former missile plant in Burlington

7. Takeaways from a snowy night in I-95 purgatory

“My boss told me if I didn’t come in, I’d get fired.” So spoke a rather grumpy but nonetheless sight-for-sore-eyes Exxon attendant near Manassas, Va., last Monday night around 10 o’clock, as he mercifully allowed my wife, Noelle, and I to fill our gas tank and use the restrooms. The circumstances of our visit – we had recently taken leave from the excruciating slog of a snowbound Interstate 95 a couple miles east – made both services essential.

We had departed the snail-like train of vehicles with the expectation of escaping for the night to some hastily arranged hotel reservations closer to the highway only to find the hotel in question and all surrounding businesses dark and without power amid a rutted patchwork of icy, unplowed parking lots. After a few moments of “what in the heck do we do now?” conversation, it became apparent that the best alternative was to try to gas up and return to the interstate crawl in hopes that the road would somehow clear.

As it turned out, the road didn’t clear – it closed – and we ended up spending the night parked on an entry ramp to the highway, dozing occasionally to the oddly comforting diesel hum of idling 18-wheelers and sporadically running our own engine to stay warm in the 17-degree chill. Around 8:30 the next morning, we followed the lead of some other lucky souls and backed off the ramp and onto the now passably plowed side roads, which eventually led west to even clearer highways and a roundabout route home. By nightfall Tuesday, 30 hours after leaving New York City, we were back in North Carolina – grateful, tired and not too much worse for wear. [Read more…]

8. EPA launches civil rights inquiry into DEQ’s permitting of biogas systems on hog farms

The Environmental Protection Agency is opening an investigation into whether state regulators violated civil rights law when last spring, they granted permits to four industrialized hog farms that are installing anaerobic digesters to produce biogas for renewable energy. The investigation is in response to a complaint against the NC Department of Environmental Quality filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing several community groups.

SELC alleges that when DEQ granted the general permits to the Smithfield-owned farms, the agency failed to protect the surrounding communities from air and water pollution. A disproportionate share of the hundreds of families who live around the hog operations in Duplin and Sampson County are Black and Latino.

Under a federal civil rights law, known as Title VI, entities that receive federal funds can’t from discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin —intentionally or unintentionally. [Read more…]

9. Weekly Radio Interviews and Daily Commentaries:

Click here to listen to the latest from Policy Watch Executive Director Rob Schofield.

10. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

About the GOP’s historical amnesia on voting rights

President Joe Biden speaks in Atlanta on Tuesday. Photo: Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

If you get into an argument with a Republican about the GOP’s lamentable support for voting rights and its fractured relationship with Black Americans, it won’t be long before your rhetorical sparring partner bellows “Robert Byrd” at you and declares the argument over.

The logic here, if it even can be called that, is that because Byrd, the wizened former U.S. senator from West Virginia who has been dead for more than a decade, was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan, then Democrats cannot be true supporters of civil rights and Black Americans. This political original sin is further compounded, they will tell you, by the fact that such southern Democrats as the late Arkansas Gov. Orval Fabus led the charge against school desegregation in the late 1950s.

This analysis leaves out the fact that Byrd had a well-documented change of heart later in life, and that the so-called “southern strategy” Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater employed in the 1960s lured racist whites into the Republican fold, where they have remained ever since.

A half-century later, a Trumpified Republican Party that’s left the legacy of Abraham Lincoln far behind, is still flipping Democrats the Byrd as it stands steadfastly in the way of the voting rights legislation that’s now slowly and tortuously making its way through Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., wants to hold a vote on two bills, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, ahead of Monday’s nationwide Martin Luther King Day holiday. To do that, Democrats will have to reach an internal consensus as they debate whether to change the Senate rules to lift the 60-vote threshold to advance legislation.

With some Democrats opposing the rules change, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with President Joe Biden, are pushing hard for it. The Senate is divided 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris wielding the tie-breaking vote.

In a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, Biden laid out the historic stakes of failing to pass nationwide voting protections as Republican-controlled legislatures across the country, including Pennsylvania, have moved to restrict access to the polls.

“I think the threat to our democracy is so great that we must find a way to pass this voting rights bill,” Biden said. “Debate them, vote, let the majority prevail and if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules including getting rid of the filibuster.”

This week, Republicans opposing the bill made, as Vice News reports, a preposterous argument against the two bills, claiming that because so many voters turned out in 2020, that there’s no problem with access to the polls, and the protections embedded in the legislation aren’t necessary. Read more

Ohio Supreme Court shows North Carolina the way in the fight against gerrymandering

If you get a chance, be sure to check out this morning’s story from reporter Susan Tebben of our fellow States Newsroom outlet, the Ohio Capital-Journal, detailing yesterday’s ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court striking down a set of gerrymandered legislative maps.

As Tebben reports, the court sided with challengers and directed that new maps be drawn within ten days:

In a ruling released Wednesday afternoon, the Supreme Court announced a 4-3 decision, saying the Ohio Redistricting Commission “did not attempt to meet the standards set forth” in the legislative redistricting process of the Ohio Constitution. The majority included Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, often considered a swing vote on the decision.

“Having now seen firsthand that the current Ohio Redistricting Commission … is seemingly unwilling to put aside partisan concerns as directed by the people’s vote, Ohioans may opt to pursue further constitutional amendment to replace the current commission with a truly independent, nonpartisan commission that more effectively distances the redistricting process from partisan politics,” O’Connor wrote in her own opinion supporting invalidating the maps.

In response to the ruling, Alicia Bannon, Director of the Judiciary Program at the Brennan Center for Justice offered this assessment:

“Today the Ohio Supreme Court held the Ohio Redistricting Commission accountable to the constitution. The General Assembly maps entrenched a GOP supermajority and flouted clear partisan fairness requirements in the Ohio constitution – abuses that especially impacted Ohio’s Black, Muslim and immigrant communities. The commission is now tasked with drawing replacement maps. We will be watching to ensure that all Ohioans get the fair representation they are due.”

While Ohio’s process is somewhat different from North Carolina’s, at their core, the disputes in the two states are essentially indistinguishable. At issue is whether it is constitutional for those overseeing redistricting to rig maps so as to guarantee victory for a particular political party while effectively disenfranchising a large swath of the population — in particular people racial and religious minorities who have long been the targets of discrimination.

Indeed, North Carolina’s all-purpose GOP gerrymandering defense attorney, Phil Strach, argued for the losing side in Ohio.

This is from Tebben’s report:

The majority opinion also emphasized that the supreme court has the authority over the maps, should they need to oversee the process again. It also pushed back on an argument made by a few people during the public hearing process and from legislative leaders that partisan majority can be fixed by voting out those in the majority.

“The suggestion that the solution to unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering is simply to vote out its perpetrators is disingenuous,” the court wrote. “Partisan gerrymandering entrenches the party in power.”

Let’s fervently hope that the seven justices of North Carolina’s Supreme Court are inspired by this example as they go about reviewing the latest rigged maps in North Carolina over the coming weeks. As an on-the-mark Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial for WRAL.com put it this morning:

It is an essential element of a representative democracy in our state to assure every North Carolinian has a voice in their elected representative branches of government.

There is no doubt that these gerrymandered congressional and legislative district maps only look to give one political party a permanent strangle-hold on governmental power.

The North Carolina Supreme Court must uphold that the power resides in the people of North Carolina and not a self-perpetuating permanent majority in the legislature.

It must overturn this ruling, declare the maps unconstitutional and should appoint four former state Supreme Court justices – two Republicans and two Democrats – to draw the new lines.

The kids are not all right. Denying omicron’s impacts won’t make it better.

Less than an hour after my youngest left for high school Friday, I got the text. Less than a third of the kids in his class were there for first period. There was another substitute. And there were 10 more reported COVID cases in the school (on top of many more earlier that week).

He’s usually my chill kid, but he was clearly worried (“sketchy” was used several times) and asked to be picked up (even though he’d been super-excited to show his friends the Hasan Piker merch that he got as a late Christmas present).

Schools across the country are closing again — not because of government shutdowns, but because the insanely contagious omicron variant is doing that job for us. When you don’t have enough healthy teachers or students, something’s got to give.

We live in a time when a major Michigan hospital is emailing patients and running ads declaring in all caps, “We’re at a breaking point,” thanks to unvaccinated patients overrunning hospitals and staff getting ill.

Pretending that schools would be immune from the omicron domino effect is magical thinking. If we were serious about trying to ensure in-person learning continued, we would talk about vaccine mandates for students and staff. But given that only 62% of the country is fully vaccinated (it’s only 57% in Michigan and North Carolina) and millions believe right-wing conspiracies about the shots, we don’t even discuss the smartest policy option.

Instead, there’s a lot of screaming from Republicans and pundits that teachers unions should be broken and schools should be forced to remain open — something they’ve always wanted and are just using a pandemic as an excuse. They cynically believe that making teachers the enemy, as they’ve done with attacks on Critical Race Theory, is the key to winning the midterms. (Also, government mandates are evidently OK as long as it furthers a right-wing agenda, got it).

It’s weird how the same people who tell us we musn’t ever hurt the feefees of selfishly unvaxxed folks that brought on the omicron onslaught have no problem calling teachers lazy bums for having concerns about their safety.

So I didn’t hesitate to pick my son up last week, even though Ivy League economics professors might tell me I should tell my kid to suck it up because it’s time to just rosé all day and put the plague behind us! And childless guys who average polls for a living might lecture me that my kid being out of school is an atrocity on par with 460,000 people dying in the Iraq war.

Let’s take a moment to talk about how some people have decided a plague is the perfect opportunity to do TV hits on subject areas in which they have zero expertise for the clout. There’s been no shortage of folks popping off on social media about Zoom classes and their favorite villain, teachers who don’t want to die.

In years to come, people are going to discover the tweets of their elite parents screaming that schools better take their kids off their hands during the unprecedented omicron wave in the pandemic and have a lot to talk to their therapists about.

Look, everyone is frustrated in Year 608 of COVID. The vast majority of parents are just doing the best we can, trying to make sure our kids are healthy in every way — especially if they have disabilities, preexisting conditions and mental health issues that were largely ignored in society long before the pandemic. Read more

Editorial tells GOP and its flunkies the truth about the latest state income tax cuts

Be sure to check out this morning’s lead editorial in the North Carolina McClatchy twins — Raleigh’s News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. In “A frustrated GOP wants to know: Why aren’t North Carolinians celebrating tax cuts?” the authors detail the folly of the latest state income tax cuts enacted by the Republican-led General Assembly (and why average North Carolinians aren’t celebrating them wildly).

As the editorial explains, the lack of enthusiasm amongst voters isn’t due to failures of the “liberal media” as the GOP mouthpiece group, the Carolina Partnership for Reform, laughably alleges.

Here’s the on-the-mark conclusion to the essay:

But there may be a better explanation for why most North Carolinians aren’t aware of the tax cuts. That’s because the largest share of the reductions have gone to corporations and the state’s top 20 percent of earners. Meanwhile, taxpayers have seen the sales tax applied to online sales and more services, fees and fines have increased and urban counties have increased property taxes to make up for inadequate state funding for schools and services.

State Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, the Senate’s minority leader, said it’s not a mystery why most people are not celebrating modest savings in their personal income taxes. “They are aware that they are spending more than they are getting back in supposed tax breaks,” he said. Blue said most people would prefer that their tax dollars be well spent than reflexively cut to serve a low-tax philosophy. “People are willing to invest in a quality education system because they see the results of that much more than they see the benefit of getting $131 dollars,” he said.

So here we are. After a decade of relentless tax cutting, North Carolina has lost billions of dollars in tax revenue, public schools are struggling, state services are lacking and the people who were supposedly clamoring for income tax relief don’t even notice it because they’re paying more in sales taxes, fees and local taxes.

The legislature’s Republican leadership is free to take a bow, but most North Carolinians are holding their applause.

Indeed.

Click here to read a recent article that further details the impact of GOP tax cuts and here to explore the full editorial.