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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: