Jeff Jackson was a young prosecutor living in Charlotte, North Carolina, when a seat in the State Senate unexpectedly opened up in 2014. To Jackson, politics seemed like an antidote to the daily frustration of trying poor or mentally ill people for the crimes they’d committed. “What I got to see was the end result of societal failure in the areas of health care, education, and economics,” he said. “The job started to feel like shoveling sand into the ocean.”
A combat veteran who enlisted in the Army Reserve after 9/11 and was deployed to Afghanistan, Jackson narrowly won the nod from Democratic precinct leaders. He considered his Senate appointment “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually address the pile of sand.” A single state law, he figured, could make more difference in people’s lives than decades in the courtroom.
When he got to the Senate, however, Jackson realized that he’d have virtually no influence in shaping legislation. The problem wasn’t just that Republican supermajorities controlled both chambers of the statehouse in Raleigh. It was also the fact that the district lines, drawn by the lawmakers themselves, were so gerrymandered that few seats had competitive general elections. As a result, the Legislature’s ideological complexion was decided in the GOP primaries, which in previous Senate elections had drawn less than 10 percent of all ballots cast statewide. And in districts that are safe for one party, primaries often favor candidates with extreme viewpoints.
In this polarized environment, Jackson learned, there was no incentive to compromise—or even to talk. “Basically, my entire party is locked in the basement,” he said. “We communicate with the outside world by pounding on the door. We can hear shuffling above us that gives us some indication of what’s happening. And we’re let out of the basement when it’s time to vote.”
Since they came to power in 2011, North Carolina’s Republican legislators have rolled back environmental protections, rejected a federally funded Medicaid expansion, and slashed a program that provided legal services to the poor. They’ve curtailed abortion access and made it harder to challenge racially biased sentencing in death-penalty cases.
For Jackson, the most glaring example of gerrymandering in action was House Bill 2, which banned many transgender people from using the appropriate restrooms in public buildings. The 2016 measure also stripped cities and counties of the power to impose employment standards on contractors and to safeguard LGBTQ and other civil rights.
As the nation’s moral magnifying glass focused on North Carolina, companies like PayPal and Deutsche Bank jettisoned planned expansions there. Conventions and concerts got canceled, too. The state faced $3.76 billion in business losses over 12 years, according to the Associated Press. Yet calls for repeal of the law went unheeded. Not until last March, when the NCAA threatened a five-year championship boycott, did lawmakers enact a partial repeal that still restricted local civil-rights protections.
“Once [that bill] became an economic disaster for the state, it was only kept in place because of gerrymandering,” Jackson said. “It was passed to make sure that these guys would shore up their support with the 10 percent that votes in the Republican primary. And then, after it became a disaster, the reason they couldn’t change their mind was because they knew it would jeopardize them…in the only election they could actually lose.”
The 35-year-old senator, regarded as one of the state’s up-and-coming political leaders, would soon declare that “democracy is choking on gerrymandering” and decide to work toward its elimination. He’s not alone: With several lawsuits in progress, and hundreds of people packing public hearings across the state, North Carolina has become the front line in the national battle over what defines “one person, one vote.”
North Carolina isn’t unique in tilting its electoral maps toward one segment of the population. “But it is one of relatively few states that have been as aggressive as they have—and, I’ll add, as aggressively unlawful,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at California’s Loyola Law School, who worked on voting rights as a staff member in President Barack Obama’s Justice Department.
States redraw their political lines after every federal census. The last one was in 2010, and the following year North Carolina’s GOP-controlled Legislature released its congressional and state legislative maps. North Carolina is a purple state: In 2016, it voted for both Donald Trump and the Democratic governor, Roy Cooper. But you’d never know that based on the maps.
There are two basic (and often inseparable) types of gerrymandering: racial and partisan. One race-based tactic is known as “packing”: concentrating minority voters into fewer districts. To dilute their strength, the remaining minority voters are often sprinkled throughout white districts, a practice known as “cracking.”
That’s what the Legislature did with North Carolina’s congressional districts. Before the last census, seven of the state’s 13 members of the House of Representatives were Democrats. That number fell to four (and later three) after redistricting, when GOP lawmakers crammed more black voters into two districts that were already electing African Americans by landslides. Last year, a federal court declared the districts unconstitutional and ordered a new map. The Supreme Court affirmed that decision in May 2017, in what Eric Holder, President Obama’s first attorney general, called “a watershed moment in the fight to end racial gerrymandering.”
The Legislature complied with the 2016 order—but its revised map still gave Republicans a 10-to-3 advantage. “I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander, which is not against the law,” Republican David Lewis, co-chair of the House redistricting committee, said at a hearing. “Our intent is to use the political data we have to our partisan advantage.”
Lewis had a point: The courts have tolerated skewed mapmaking when race is not a factor. Still, the League of Women Voters sued the state, calling the new map “profoundly undemocratic,” and Common Cause filed separate litigation. (The two lawsuits have since been consolidated.) There is also a Wisconsin challenge to partisan gerrymandering currently before the US Supreme Court.
North Carolina’s state legislative maps have received even more attention than its congressional ones. They too packed black voters into select districts. “We’re following…the letter of the law,” Bob Rucho, then-chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, asserted at a meeting. “And if it makes the rest of the districts more competitive [for the GOP], is that wrong that they’re more competitive? I don’t think so.”
Republican leaders insist that the new majority-black districts were designed to comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Nevertheless, a three-judge federal panel noted that African-American candidates in North Carolina often win with multiracial support, and therefore don’t need black-majority districts. In 2016, the judges called 28 of the state’s 170 districts “racial gerrymanders” and ordered them redrawn; the US Supreme Court agreed with that decision but rejected the accelerated time line. In August, GOP lawmakers released new maps, this time with race excluded entirely as a factor, and pushed them quickly toward adoption just ahead of a court-ordered deadline.
Voting-rights activists, and Democrats like Jackson, distrusted the new district lines. They had history on their side. As Levitt, of Loyola Law School, noted: “This is not North Carolina’s first tango.”
When it comes to gerrymandering, the Democrats were guilty, too. “It is impossible to have any moral credibility in discussing gerrymandering without acknowledging my party’s history in perpetuating it,” Jackson noted. That said, one big difference has been the rapid advance in mapmaking software: “We didn’t have the technological tools to cheat as badly as these guys.” And this decade’s GOP-controlled redistricting has happened in a larger context: a massive Republican assault on voting rights.
During their last decade controlling the Legislature, Democrats passed a series of reforms making it easier to vote in North Carolina: preregistration for high-school students, long early-voting periods, same-day registration and voting, and the partial counting of ballots cast by those who show up at the wrong precinct. As a result, the state climbed from 43rd in voter participation in 1996 to 11th in 2012. In 2008, African Americans had a higher turnout rate than whites, and the state handed its 15 electoral votes to Obama.
Then, in 2013—after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision gave states like North Carolina more leeway in changing their voting rules—the Legislature rescinded many of these reforms in a 49-page law that also imposed a strict voter-identification requirement. (Among other things, student-ID cards issued by state universities were not recognized.) Though they called it an anti-voter-fraud measure, state GOP leaders made their motives clear: Before passing the bill, they requested and received data showing that African-American voters were more likely to lack driver’s licenses and more likely to take advantage of measures like early voting.
The state NAACP and other groups sued. In July 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked much of the law, saying that “the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” The following month, Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, tried to organize a county-by-county rollback of early-voting hours—particularly on Sundays, when black churches would take their parishioners to the polls. Woodhouse wrote to party activists: “Six days of voting in one week is enough. Period.”
This was nothing new. Since the end of the Civil War, North Carolina’s political history has been a continued battle over who gets to vote and how much their ballots count. In the late 19th century, as black candidates started winning elections, race-baiting Democrats stirred voters by vowing to maintain white-only rule. “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses,” declared Alfred Moore Waddell, a Democratic political leader, during an 1898 speech in the port city of Wilmington.
The Democrats consolidated power by gerrymandering the state’s legislative and congressional maps. African Americans were packed into one US House district, nicknamed the “Black Second.” Its last representative was George Henry White. He stepped down in 1901, during a period of racial terror that included the violent overthrow of Wilmington’s biracial government. North Carolina had just passed a constitutional amendment imposing a poll tax and literacy test that all but eliminated the black franchise. Exempted from the literacy requirement were those who could vote before 1867 and those whose ancestors could (that is, whites).
“This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress,” White said in a goodbye speech; “but let me say, phoenixlike he will rise up some day and come again.”
It took more than nine decades for North Carolina to elect its next African American, Eva Clayton, to Congress. In the interim, only 15 percent of blacks were registered to vote in 1948, and 36 percent in 1962. Voter intimidation, fights over racial gerrymandering, and overtly racist campaigns peppered the 20th century.
So it should come as no surprise that, when Republican lawmakers released the new legislative maps in August, there were widespread doubts about their integrity.
The new maps were drawn up by Tom Hofeller, the same Republican consultant responsible for the current ones. Their total exclusion of race, at the request of GOP legislators, appalled voting-rights advocates. As State Representative Mickey Michaux, an 87-year-old Democrat who’d marched in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr., observed at one committee meeting: “The districts were declared unconstitutional because of race. If you don’t use race to correct it, how are you going to show the court that they’re not still unconstitutional?”
Hofeller had also been instructed to make “reasonable efforts” to protect incumbents, even though some were elected from tainted districts. “That incumbency was achieved by using an unconstitutional racial gerrymander to give them a partisan stranglehold,” said Derick Smith, the political-action chair of the North Carolina NAACP. “I don’t know how you can disconnect all of that.”
The Legislature released its draft maps the weekend of August 19–20, less than two weeks before the court-ordered deadline. Ruth Greenwood, senior counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, did a quick analysis and calculated that they would allow the Republicans to control either North Carolina chamber with about 46 percent of the vote statewide.
Two days after the release of the district lines, lawmakers held seven simultaneous public hearings linked by video cameras. The hearings began at 4 pm on a Tuesday, when many voters were still working. In Charlotte, the state’s largest city, the hearing room had an official capacity of 37. More than 100 people squeezed inside while others, barred from entering, waited in the hallway.
Tempers ran high. People were still raw from the explosion of violence at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the previous week, and the GOP-slanted maps seemed to them like a more genteel form of white supremacy. “This looks like a foregone conclusion,” said one resident before the meeting, addressing a Republican House member. “That’s the point,” responded another.
The hearing involved a lot of waiting: watching the other sites on a monitor and craning to hear the scratchy audio. The attendees laughed as Warren Heitzenrater, a Baptist minister at another location, complained of technology that “makes voices sound like Mr. Ed and [Herman] Munster and Mickey Mouse stuck down in a well.” They listened closely as Eva Clayton, the former congresswoman, criticized the Legislature’s “audacity” in replicating the process that had produced the illegal maps and then releasing “very limited information” before a hastily called hearing. “The right to vote is the most precious right we have as Americans,” Clayton said. “Redistricting is one way to deny that…. This is no more than a sham. If the process is flawed, the product is flawed.”
When the Charlotteans finally did get a chance to speak, they didn’t hold back. “In 2005, in December, I was part of the force of Marines that [encouraged] the voters of Iraq to participate in the first free and fair elections…since 1958,” said former officer Jim Doermann. “And now, 12 years later, I’m in my own state watching my fellow citizens have to fight to have free and fair elections?… You can’t understand how upsetting that is to me: to know that we’ll send people overseas, and dump trillions of dollars into wars overseas to spread democracy, and then we have officials in our own cities and states that fight against letting us have fair and free representation in our own country. It’s disgusting, and it’s anti-American.”
On August 30, state lawmakers approved the new maps with minor modifications and submitted them to the federal court for approval. “I’m not aware of a way [to redistrict] and have it not be partisan,” said Republican State Representative John Torbett, vice chair of the House redistricting committee. “Politics is in anything we do in Raleigh. That’s not a bad thing.”
The first bill that Jeff Jackson filed as a state senator, in 2015, would have created an independent commission to redistrict the Legislature. A Republican, Charles Jeter, co-sponsored the House version, and the two men penned a joint op-ed for The Charlotte Observer. (Republicans, when they were out of power, spent two decades advocating for independent redistricting.) To blunt the expected opposition, the sponsors proposed an effective date of 2030.
Jackson’s bill was assigned to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which doesn’t meet and is known as the chamber’s graveyard. “I was told not only would this not occur in 2030, but they would never allow this to occur,” Jackson said. “It went in the trash can, as I suppose it was always destined to.”
This year, Jackson co-sponsored another measure that would have turned redistricting over to the Legislature’s nonpartisan staff. (Lawmakers would still have the final say.) It too died in committee.
Jackson’s unsuccessful bills represent the two main approaches to redistricting reform. Independent commissions are popular in Western states; the most ambitious is California’s, which was approved by voters in a 2008 referendum. There, the Bureau of State Audits helps to select a 14-member panel, diverse and free of ethical conflicts, which currently includes a bookstore owner, a retired school principal, and a geographer. (There were 30,000 applicants, winnowed partly by lottery.) A League of Women Voters study credited the commission with “shaking up the incumbent-centered world of California politics.”
Iowa, by contrast, entrusts redistricting to the Legislature’s nonpartisan career staff. To keep the process unblemished, the staffers are not allowed to consider previous election results or the addresses of incumbents. However, the state’s lawmakers still do have a veto.
Jackson said he prefers an independent commission but is open to all good-faith proposals. “Literally any method of drawing districts is better than what we have now,” he said. “I would take monkeys throwing darts at a board over the system that we have now.”
Proposals to overhaul North Carolina’s system are guaranteed to meet with resistance from GOP leaders. “It is tempting, in many cases, to turn over important governance to experts,” said one of them, State Senator Dan Bishop, who sits on his chamber’s redistricting committee. “A process that important must be ultimately answerable to the representatives of the people through elections.” Bishop pointed to a ProPublica investigation of Democratic efforts to game the system in California. “A panel of experts does not equal ‘nonpartisan,’” he said.
Even so, the seeming impossibility of getting his colleagues to risk their safe seats doesn’t deter Jackson. He persists with humor, along with a strong social-media game that includes an animated video that has been viewed 18,400 times. Once, when Jackson showed up at an empty statehouse on a snow day, he spent five hours tweeting his imaginary accomplishments. Not only did his one-vote majority establish independent redistricting; it also expanded rural broadband and outlawed puppy mills.
“There’s a lot of frustration that stems from gerrymandering,” Jackson observed, “but I try to remind people there’s an optimistic case to be made as well. The only thing preventing North Carolina from functioning as a 50/50 state is gerrymander-ing.” Draw fairer maps, he said, and “there’s a field of low-hanging policy fruit” that lawmakers from both parties can enact together. Early-childhood education is one obvious example: “I could go to the deepest-red county in North Carolina and ask them if their children deserve the same chance as children from Charlotte or Raleigh, and they will say yes.… That’s a substantive political agreement on which we can really build good policy.
“We are much closer than people realize to being able to make folks proud of the work we’re doing for them,” Jackson added. “And of returning to a sense of reasonability and decency on their behalf.”