Updated: May 10
On Thursday, June 27, 2019, the nation’s highest court declared that it was too delicate a flower to deal with partisan gerrymandering. The issue, the court said, was beyond the scope of their authority.
As this court routinely decides on issues that affect the lives of Americans – health care access, pollution regulations, women’s health issues, who can be armed how heavily and where, not to mention the death penalty – the decision smelled like a stretch. When you consider the court makes decisions that can in effect overturn the laws passed by those gerrymandered legislatures – and does routinely – the decision and its reasoning are even worse.
So what does this have to do with North Carolina, and why is it bad? A lot, and a lot. North Carolina’s legislative districts have been gerrymandered for years, but gerrymandering on steroids is a relatively recent development. In the run-up to the 2010 election, the Republican State Leadership Committee created Project REDMAP. The plan was to seize control of state legislatures in 2010 races and implement gerrymanders in those states following the 2010 census.
North Carolina was one of the top targets, and the GOP took control of both bodies of the state General Assembly for the first time since 1970. In the next step, gerrymandering guru Tom Hofeller was brought in to draw maps using sophisticated software to create new lines to drain every possible drop of partisan advantage out of North Carolina via new legislative lines. The new legislature approved the new lines, and it worked like a charm. Slim majorities in ensuing elections yielded supermajorities in the state House and Senate; newly drawn congressional lines turned a politically balanced state into a 10-3 GOP majority in the state’s congressional representation.
GOP Rep. David Lewis, who famously said the 10-3 map was fine only because mapmakers couldn’t find a way to make it an 11-2 Republican edge, defended the redistricting thusly: “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.”
As of June 22 voter registration numbers in North Carolina showed 2.47 million Democrats; 2.13 million Unaffiliated; 2.003 million Republicans, and a smattering of Libertarian, Green and Constitution Party members.
If the GOP is in third place in North Carolina, why is it such a dominating first place in the legislature? Gerrymandering is the obvious answer.
In response to the obvious unfairness of the situation, the Supreme Court basically said, “Well, what ya gonna do?’’
You can bet this will be seen as a green light for even more radical gerrymandering and political hardball from the GOP. This decision, in fact, can be put down to political hardball. The dots between Merrick Garland and the 5-4 decision aren’t very hard to connect. Will Democrats respond with hardball on their own, say by packing the Supreme Court? It’s doubtful. On Twitter, New York Magazine contributor David Freedlander wrote, “If history is any guide, Republicans in red states will respond to this SCOTUS ruling by gerrymandering Democrats to a fare-thee-well, and Democrats in blue states will respond by setting up a nonpartisan redistricting commission.”
Responding to Thursday’s decision, Lewis said, “Today’s ruling establishes precedent that it is not the judicial branch’s responsibility to determine the winners and the losers.” Unsaid: The winners and losers will continue to be determined by an already-gerrymandered legislature.
The next round of battle will be whether state courts have a say in the matter, a round that will likely come quickly in North Carolina.
In the meantime, it’s worth reading Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent.
“In North Carolina, however the political winds blow, there are 10 dissenting Republicans and 3 Democrats. Is it conceivable that someday voters will be able to break out of that prefabricated box? Sure. But everything possible has been done to make that hard. To create a world in which power does not flow from the people because they do not choose their governors. Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections…
“If there is a single idea that made our Nation (and that our Nation commended to the world), it is this one: The people are sovereign. The ‘power,’ James Madison wrote, ‘is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people.’ Free and fair and periodic elections are the key to that vision,” Kagan wrote. “The people get to choose their representatives. And then they get to decide, at regular intervals, whether to keep them.” In North Carolina, it’s the legislators who decide whether to keep … well, themselves.
The Supreme Court said it’s up to Congress and the state to decide gerrymandering issues.