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.