North Carolina Republicans Just Took Gerrymandering to a Whole New Level

North Carolina Republicans Just Took Gerrymandering to a Whole New Level

North Carolina Republicans Just Took Gerrymandering to a Whole New Level

The conservative state Supreme Court majority has thrown the door open to virtually unchecked GOP rule.


Gerrymandering is a political practice as old as America itself. It’s the time-honored tradition in which politicians draw district boundaries to maximize their own party’s power and limit the influence of their opponents. When it comes to gerrymandering, few states have honed the craft as well as North Carolina, but on April 28, the new Republican majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court took things to a whole new level.

Reversing a ruling handed down by a Democratic majority on the same court last December, the justices not only threw out a verdict that held that state legislative and congressional voting maps were illegal gerrymanders drawn to give Republicans an advantage, but effectively wrote the entire judiciary and the governor’s office out of reviewing district maps altogether.

“Our constitution expressly assigns the redistricting authority to the General Assembly,” wrote Chief Justice Paul Newby.

The court also reversed two other decisions—one that found a voter ID law to be discriminatory against Black voters and another that restored the right to vote to formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions.

As a result of these rulings, North Carolina Republicans, who currently also hold a veto-proof supermajority in the General Assembly, now enjoy virtually unchecked power not only over how maps are drawn but also how the state’s elections are held and even who gets to vote.

“It’s a radical departure…a 180-degree change in how we have considered our system of government and the role of courts,” said Hilary Harris Klein, senior counsel for voting rights for a coalition of Southern-based groups, including Common Cause.

It’s also a devastating blow to democracy, according to North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. “Our constitution is supposed to be a check on the power of the legislature. But these Republican justices have surrendered that role, taking power away from the people and giving it to an out-of-control gerrymandered Republican supermajority in the legislature,” Stein said in a statement.

The implications of the North Carolina decision extend well beyond the state. New maps could help Republicans cement their power not only in Raleigh but also in the US House, where gerrymandering could add at least three Republican seats. North Carolina also serves as a possible model for other states, especially those that elect their judges, as this state does. Safe districts become homes for extremist candidates, like Mark Meadows, formerly a North Carolina representative and Donald Trump’s chief of staff. They become testing grounds for extremist policies. North Carolina was the first in the nation to pass an anti-trans “bathroom bill,” for example. And it’s not lost on pro-democracy activists here that their state sent no fewer than nine busloads of protesters to Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally at the US Capitol on January 6. At least 28 North Carolina residents have so far been indicted in connection with those events.

The decision also makes the chance of 2020-style postelection chaos much more likely, as election officials try to reconcile state laws with federal ones and voting rights groups contest skewed districts. That’s not just a problem for North Carolina, where “majority rule” already feels like a fantasy for many voters; it feeds a right-wing effort to discredit democracy itself.

How did this purple state become such a petri dish for extremism? The end of campaign contribution caps and federal oversight over voting rights helped, but the biggest culprit was voting maps. After African American participation reached a historic high, helping to elect Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans poured mountains of cash into local races and seized control of the state legislature and the governor’s office. With their newfound power, they set out to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts in a way that would cement their political dominance indefinitely, even as North Carolina became more urban and diverse.

One of the most notorious examples of gerrymandering in that period was the state’s 12th Congressional District, a 160-mile sliver of territory that encompassed African American neighborhoods in Charlotte, and then snaked its way through rural areas to pick up pockets of Democratic voters and contain them in one skinny district.

The North Carolina Supreme Court eventually struck down that district as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, but after 2011, the legislature redrew the state’s congressional map again. The result was a congressional delegation that was overwhelmingly Republican, even though North Carolina is a closely divided state. In 2016, for example, Democrats won 46 percent of the vote in North Carolina’s congressional races but only managed to win three of the state’s 13 seats.

A case contesting the constitutionality of those maps made its way all the way to the US Supreme Court, which eventually ruled that the districts had been drawn with an unconstitutional level of racial gerrymandering. The court ordered the state to redraw once more, which led to a special election in 2019 that saw Democrats win more seats.

Today, North Carolina’s congressional delegation is evenly split between Democrats and seven Republicans. It’s that reality that prompted the GOP to go back to the now-Republican high court. “They want to be able to make whatever decision they want, ignoring the will of the people,” Stein, who recently announced a run for governor, said.

What can be done? There’s no easy answer. The courts have proven to be an imperfect solution, with legal battles over redistricting dragging on for years at a time. Some have called for the creation of independent redistricting commissions, which would take the power of redistricting out of the hands of politicians altogether.

Others are looking at the legacy of legal scholar and North Carolinian Pauli Murray, whose forward-thinking approach to constitutional law helped lay the groundwork for the 20th-century civil rights movement.

At a time when the prospects for change were even dimmer than they are now, Murray, a queer Black woman whom many today would call transgender, challenged her contemporaries to use the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection clause” to contest the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Dismissed at the time, her concept would later be used in litigation overturning segregation in Brown v. Board of Education.

“Murray really taught us that we have to bring life to the language in our foundational documents,” said Hilary Klein. “They made promises to the people of this country. And it is our job to bring life to that and to have those words meet the challenges of today.”

In 2019, the US Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled that claims of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering should be left to the states. But in North Carolina, party and race are so closely aligned that if you allow partisan gerrymandering, inevitably you are discriminating against Black voters. “And that’s offensive,” Stein said.

The US Supreme Court still has an opportunity to reject the dangerous “independent state legislature” theory and decide in favor of civil rights groups soon. A case currently before the court, called Moore v. Harper, has to do with North Carolina’s contentions about who has the authority to redistrict. A verdict overturning the lower court’s ruling in Moore would go a long way toward avoiding election chaos. More likely, because the North Carolina court has struck down the maps at the heart of the contention, the justices will declare the case moot. If that happens, their ultimate verdict on one-party rule will have to wait.

Deciding the Fate of Democracy in North Carolina,” The Laura Flanders Show’s latest in a series of reports, premiers May 7th on PBS Stations. Also available on Youtube, and as a free podcast.

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