North Carolinians deserve fair maps. Lawmakers must deliver

February may be the shortest month of the year, but it will define democracy for the next decade in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the state’s most recent congressional and legislative maps in a landmark 4-3 decision last week, calling the discriminatory districts “unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.” The historic decision is the first step toward what millions of North Carolinians across party lines, race, and background, want to see from the map drawing process — fair maps and an end to gerrymandering.

The struck-down maps had the most devastating impact on communities of color. For example, 25% of NC’s Black legislators could have lost their seats this year under the manipulated maps, and in eastern North Carolina two state Senate districts and a congressional district were drawn to dilute Black voters’ voices and representation. This diminishment was present across the state under the enacted maps; it is unacceptable and contrary to what most North Carolinians want to see. The people just want fair maps, and recent polling shows 72 percent of North Carolinians think gerrymandering is a problem.

The redistricting issues we face today closely mirror what we faced in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed. More than a half century later, North Carolina’s elected officials are still using the same extreme gerrymandering practices to entrench their own power at the expense of voters. Maps should not be drawn for the benefit of the politicians or political parties, or to dilute the power of the people. Politicians are not accountable to their constituents when people lose power in uncompetitive districts. Further, the erosion of fair representation holds the people back – whether through environmental injustice or lack of access to healthcare – gerrymandered maps mean our issues can remain ignored year after year. Gerrymandering was wrong in the last century, and it is still wrong today.

Lawmakers have until February 18th to submit an alternative map to the trial court, and we call upon them to rectify their past mistakes. They have an opportunity to create a fair redistricting process guaranteeing the voices of all North Carolinians are heard. To ensure map-drawing is open and accessible, legislators should include meaningful public engagement. If timing over the next week does not allow for public hearings, the legislature should ensure comments can be sent electronically. Additionally, to establish much needed transparency in this process, lawmakers should: disclose publicly how citizen comments will be reviewed and integrated into the map-drawing process; name all parties participating in the process, including any third parties who may assist them; and identify what programs are being used to draw maps. Under no circumstances should maps be drawn in a backroom with concept maps that mysteriously disappear from public view.

Last Friday’s decision gives the General Assembly a second chance to do the right thing for all North Carolinians. We deserve nothing less. It’s past time for us to move forward toward a North Carolina that’s equitable, fair and just for all of its residents.

Kyle Hamilton Brazile is the Director of Civic Engagement at NC Counts Coalition.

NC House approves a new redistricting plan with some changes Democrats wanted, but the debate over new maps is not over

Democrats would win more legislative races in redistricting plans Republicans presented Wednesday, but in some ways the debate over how to draw new maps in ways the state Supreme Court required seemed to go back to where it started last year.

Democrats questioned the lack of racially polarized voting study, which House and Senate Republicans said was not needed.

Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue said Senate Republicans did not repair districts judges cited as problems. The Senate redistricting committee approved its new plan for districts on a voice vote, with some members voting against it.

“It does not address the issue the court said to address,” Blue said later. “It’s still a partisan gerrymander.”

By the end of the day Wednesday, the House had a new plan for its districts, and a Senate committee had approved a revised map for Senate districts. The House and Senate each released proposed congressional district maps, but they were not publicly debated.

House approval of the revised plan for state House distracts was delayed for hours as Republican leaders in that chamber negotiated a deal with Rep. Robert Reives, the chamber’s Democratic leader. The results were changes in Republicans’ new proposed map to districts in Wake, Buncombe, Cabarrus, and Mecklenburg. The House approved a revised redistricting plan 115-5.

“What we were trying to do is accomplish what we thought the court wanted us to do,” Reives said after the vote. Neither side got all they wanted in the negotiation, Reives said.

“If you took the court opinion as a whole, if you took the stated positions of the plaintiffs, the stated positions of the defendants, we’re at a map now that provides a path to the majority for Democrats, if statewide Democrats are successful,” he said.

The House plan now goes to the Senate for a vote.

Legislators are rushing to approve new redistricting plans for the congressional and legislative elections to meet a Friday deadline to submit them to a trio of Superior Court judges for review. The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the new GOP-drawn congressional and legislative districts enacted last year and ordered new redistricting maps that do not devalue Democratic votes. The plans Republican legislators enacted last year skewed heavily to GOP advantage, giving Republicans a chance to win supermajorities in both chambers that would withstand shifting political sentiments.

Rep. Destin Hall, House Redistricting Committee chairman

Unlike the map-drawing of last year, legislators this time made no display of transparency. All the work was done behind closed doors.

House Democrats initially disapproved of the new districts Republicans proposed Wednesday morning. It moved out of the House Redistricting Committee with no Democratic votes.

The question whether the legislature needs to do a study of racially polarized voting or draw districts in eastern North Carolina that would give Black voters the chance to elect candidates of their choice was raised last year and remains a sticking point.

Rep. Destin Hall, the House Redistricting Committee chairman, defended the revised plan for state House seats as Democrats questioned the lack of a study of racially polarized voting.

In a letter to legislative leaders Tuesday, lawyers with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented Common Cause in the redistricting case,  said the legislature needs to determine whether there is racially polarized voting in parts of the state, which would require drawing districts where Black voters have the chance to elect candidates of their choice. The lawyers’ letter quoted from the Supreme Court order:

“The General Assembly must first assess whether, using current election and population data, racially polarized voting is legally sufficient in any area of the state such that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires the drawing of a district to avoid diluting the strength of African-American voters.”

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford)

Hall told the committee he saw the lawyers’ letter, but that the expert Republicans hired to analyze districts and testify at the redistricting trial, Jeffrey Lewis of UCLA, determined that a district with a majority Black voting population did not need to be drawn.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, proposed changes to districts in Wayne, Duplin and surrounding counties to create a district where Black voters would be able to elect the candidate of their choice.

Hall urged House members to vote against the amendment. “It would make the entire map illegal,” he said.

Harrison’s amendment failed 50-70. She was one of five Democrats to vote against the revised House plan.

Democracy advocates celebrate Supreme Court gerrymandering ruling, demand fair maps from lawmakers

Kyle Brazile of the NC Counts Coalition speaks at today’s press conference. Photo: Rob Schofield

Speedy court-ordered timeline is the legislature’s problem, not ours, say reps from civil and voting rights groups

It was a fair and obvious first question for one of the assembled journalists to pose at today’s Democracy North Carolina-led anti-gerrymandering press conference on the front lawn of the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh. Gary Robertson of the Associated Press got right to it after the presenters from an array of civil and voting rights groups concluded their presentations.

You say you want an open and transparent process that allows for full public participation, Robertson observed to the collection of civil and voting rights advocates who had just spoken, but the Supreme Court has required the legislature to submit reworked maps by this Friday — just over 72 hours from now. How, he asked, can the Republican legislators overseeing the process possibly comply with such demands?

It was Kyle Brazile of the NC Counts Coalition who was standing at the podium when the question was posed and to his credit, Brazile answered the question in an eminently reasonable fashion by: a) reiterating the group’s thanks and support for the Supreme Court’s recent ruling striking down gerrymandered maps, and b) restating what would make for a fair process.

Reggie Weaver of the NC Black Alliance speaks at today’s press event flanked by Melissa Kromm of NC Voters for Clean Elections and Maria Gonzalez of El Pueblo. Photo: Rob Schofield

In other words, Brazile was rightfully saying, “You know what? That’s not our problem.” Yes, the legislature pursued an unconstitutional path for months that produced a collection of unconstitutional maps. Yes, the Supreme Court has ordered it to remedy the situation posthaste. Yes, GOP lawmakers are now in a bind — especially given that they’ve done nothing in public to move the process forward over the last week and a half. But that’s what you get when you repeatedly ignore the constitution and federal voting rights laws for many months — indeed years.

What he might have added by way of analogy is that it’s not unlike the dilemma that confronts any number of lawbreakers. Take Bernie Madoff for example. It’s true that he was never going to be in a position to pay back all the people he ripped off with his bogus investment schemes. But that didn’t mean that his victims were wrong to demand swift justice — be it actual compensation or punishment for Madoff.

As each of the other assembled speakers at today’s event — Reggie Weaver of the North Carolina Black Alliance, Maria Gonzalez of El Pueblo, Ricky Leung of NC Asian Americans Together, Jo Nicholas of the League of Women Voters NC, Conchita McIver of Democracy North Carolina, Guilford County resident Martha Shafer, and Bladen County resident Rev. Keith Graham — made plain, Republican legislators have been unconstitutionally and illegally rigging state elections for more than a decade and have been called out by the courts many times.

They have, in short, had plenty of time to clean up their act and have instead chosen repeatedly to try and evade responsibility and keep rigging elections. That they now, as a result of their blatant and knowing malfeasance, find themselves between a rock and hard place and facing the likely prospect of losing any ability to control the final outcome of the redistricting process is simply a reality that’ll have to live with and get used to.

Can NC legislators elected from unconstitutional districts propose changing the constitution?

The state Supreme Court heard arguments today over whether legislators elected from illegal districts could legitimately put constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The state NAACP wants constitutional amendments requiring photo voter ID and capping state taxes invalidated.

In 2018, federal courts determined that legislators had been elected from unconstitutional racially gerrymandered districts and required new maps.

Before elections using new district lines, Republicans in the legislature had enough votes to put six proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. Getting proposed constitutional amendments to voters requires approval by three-fifths votes in the House and Senate.

Voters approved four amendments, including those requiring voters to present photo identification before casting ballots and capping the state income tax rate at 7%. Voters rejected two other proposed amendments that would have limited the governor’s power.

The legislature cannot rely on votes from legislators elected from illegally gerrymandered districts to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot, said Kym Hunter, a lawyer representing the NAACP.

“The will of the people was not being represented in those districts,” she said.

Chief Justice Paul Newby noted that a majority of voters approved both of the amendments the NAACP wants invalidated.

“Why should we discount or undervalue the vote of the people?” he asked.

Martin Warf, a lawyer representing Republican legislative leaders, said the legislature had the authority to act.

“The members were elected in 2016 under valid law of that time,” he said. They “retained the constitutional authority to act until the end of their terms.”

A Wake County Superior Court judge in 2019 tossed out the two amendments. “An illegally constituted General Assembly does not represent the people of North Carolina and is therefore not empowered to pass legislation that would amend the state’s Constitution,” he wrote.

In 2020, the state Appeals Court overturned the lower court in a 2-1 decision.

Hunter said Monday that constitutional amendments, unlike other laws, are not easily undone. The NAACP is not calling for the invalidation of all laws passed while lawmakers from illegal districts were in office, she said.

“We would ask that this court declare that a North Carolina General Assembly cannot rely on votes from racially gerrymandered districts to achieve the supermajority necessary to amend the constitution,” Hunter said. Only the period after the districts were declared illegal needs to be considered,” she said.

Leading up to Monday’s oral arguments, Justices Phil Berger Jr. and Tamara Barringer, both Republicans, rejected calls for their recusal. Berger Jr. is the son of Senate leader Phil Berger, a defendant in the case. Barringer was a member of the state Senate when it voted to put the proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

What I learned from watching more than 500 Jan. 6 videos

A pro-Trump mob breaks through police barriers at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Screenshot from a video published by ProPublica)

I recently watched hundreds of videos from the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Many of the stark moments from the attack on the U.S. Capitol are well-known — the battle at the west terrace tunnel, the shooting of rioter Ashli Babbitt, the desecration of the Senate chamber.

But nothing provides the kind of granular and exhaustive understanding of that day like a mass of videos taken by rioters themselves as they converse with one another, chant together, coalesce as a mob, commit violence, and take stock of what they accomplished. Here’s the top takeaway: The insurrection represented a greater threat to America than casual observers think.

ProPublica published a collection of videos posted to the social media site Parler by people who were present at the Jan. 6 attack. The videos cover almost six hours, from the early afternoon when President Donald Trump delivered an incendiary speech at The Ellipse to the evening as law enforcement finally cleared the Capitol grounds of attackers. The collection includes more than 500 videos.

I watched every one. Here’s what I learned.

Rioters attacked the Capitol because they believed that’s what Trump wanted them to do. This is indisputable. Trump, who had been claiming without evidence that the 2020 election had been stolen from him, during his speech exhorted followers to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.”

One man posted a video of himself coming from Trump’s speech on his way to the Capitol, and he says, “Maybe we’ll break down the doors,” shortly before the mob did just that. “We were invited here,” a person screams at police. “We were invited by the president of the United States!” Another person made a video shortly after 2 p.m. as the mob swarmed the east side of the Capitol. “They’re ready to really stand up and do a revolutionary war,” he observes. “Hey, Trump asked for wild. He got it.”

Revolutionary war — that’s the spirit in which the insurrectionists took action on Jan. 6. Rep. Lauren Boebert that morning tweeted “Today is 1776.” What becomes clear in scores of videos from the attack is that the memory of the American Revolution animated the whole violent episode. Crowds chanted “1776.” The conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, armed with a bullhorn, led his own “1776” chant. Some of the first rioters to break into the Capitol shouted, “1776, motherf***ers.” Throughout the afternoon, attackers purported to fight as if in the manner of a colonial citizen militia.

The presence of contemporary militia elements was conspicuous at the Capitol. It is now well-known that organized factions of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and other militia groups were active on Jan. 6. The videos demonstrate that their participation in the attack could not have been missed by anyone who was there. The Three Percenters, to which Boebert has ties, were especially visible. Members wore insignia on their clothes. They flew identifying flags. The Southern Poverty Law Center says the Three Percenters is “an extremist movement that claims to be ready to carry out armed resistance to perceived tyranny.” They don’t have to just claim it. They did it on Jan. 6.

An underappreciated aspect of the attack is that it was undergirded by strains of religion. Read more