North Carolina is a fairly diverse state but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the state’s government. The North Carolina General Assembly is whiter, much more male, and much more Republican than North Carolina itself. Of North Carolina’s almost 7 million registered voters 2,090,963 are registered as Republicans, 2,663,626 are registered Democrats, and 2,206,917 are unaffiliated. The General Assembly on the other hand includes just 46 Democrats to 74 Republicans in the House, and 15 Democrats to 35 Republicans in the Senate, and of the state’s 13 Representatives in the U.S. House 10 are Republicans. This didn’t happen by accident, North Carolina’s government is dramatically different from North Carolina because the state legislative districts were manipulated specifically to disenfranchise certain voters in certain districts.
The practice of gerrymandering involves drawing legislative maps so that certain groups are deliberately split up between districts and end up as a minority in those districts. This isn’t a new issue and North Carolina is far from the only state that’s been gerrymandered recently; Pennsylvania also had to redraw their legislative maps under court order earlier this year.
Legislative maps are complicated for a range of reasons. For instance, voters in densely populated urban areas tend to vote more Democratic, and often have large majorities in those districts, whereas Republicans often have narrower majorities in more rural areas. Even a map drawn logically and impartially can leave Democrats with political representation that doesn’t exactly match their percentage of the population.
Because of complications like this, and because those doing the gerrymandering are the ones in political power, it can take years for gerrymandering to come to light. Once it does, it often takes more years for the issue to reach the levels in the courts where redistricting is mandated, and then still more years for fair redistricting to actual be successfully completed. This was the case in North Carolina, and for all those years elections have been occurring, and North Carolina voters in several districts were being denied meaningful participation in their government.
The most recent North Carolina political map was created in 2011. Representative David R. Lewis who oversaw the redistricting, and who still holds a seat in the General Assembly, stated plainly that “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats, so I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country,” These maps, designed to suppress Democratic voters, in particular black Democratic voters, were approved by the General assembly and have been used for the past 7 years.
In 2016 a U.S. District court ruled that the state districts had been illegally racially gerrymandered. The Republican controlled General Assembly has been fighting the ruling for the past two years and while they haven’t had any legal success in the courts, it’s worked very well as a stalling tactic to prevent a new fair map from being implemented. In August of this year the General Assembly presented a map for the Court’s approval, but a panel of judges ruled that that map was still unfairly gerrymandered. Unfortunately, releasing a new district map, even a fairer one, just months before the election is likely to create voter confusion and cause other problems, and given that such a map doesn’t even exist yet, there are few options at this point. On September 4, the panel of judges ruled that for the November midterm election North Carolina will use the existing election map that has already been ruled as unconstitutional. This is a blow to democracy that doesn’t just affect North Carolina; because North Carolina’s congressional districts are also gerrymandered this could impact which party ends up in control of the U.S. House after the midterms.
Gerrymandering, legislative maps, and panels of federal judges all seem complicated, but what’s at issue here is very simple: the politicians in power in North Carolina tried to stay in power by making it so that certain citizens didn’t have their votes count in a meaningful way. This was done to disenfranchise black voters especially. These Republicans in North Carolina have continued to fight against the constitutional rights of their own citizens, and they’ve been so successful at subverting democracy that now the state is being forced to use a map that deprives the entire state of the opportunity to have a fair election.