The big story in Raleigh and around country this week has been the attempt by religious conservatives to codify discrimination against gay men and women in the name of “religious freedom.”
The resulting backlash from corporate and community leaders from Indiana to Arkansas has slowed the march towards intolerance in those states and here in North Carolina, where Governor Pat McCrory has expressed reservations about the proposal and Speaker Tim Moore doesn’t seem too enthusiastic about taking it up in the house.
That’s the good news, that the homophobic defense of discrimination act is now on the back burner, though it’s far too early to celebrate given the way the General Assembly has operated in recent years, with unannounced midnight sessions and hastily called committee meetings to attach controversial proposals like limits on abortion rights to legislation about motorcycle safety.
Still, the reactionary, pro-discrimination forces are reeling a little this week and it’s about time. But while the public debate raged about the misnamed religious freedom legislation, House and Senate leaders completed a stunning partisan power grab in Wake County that didn’t garner enough attention and outrage despite front-page headlines and stirring speeches by its opponents.
The House voted to change the districts in Wake County Commission races to give Republicans a much better chance of winning a majority of the seats. The Senate already passed the proposal and since it is technically a local bill, it does not require Governor McCrory’s signature and he can’t veto it.
It became law with the final House vote that came 5 months after Democrats regained control of the board in November by winning all five seats that were up for election.
The Democrats won the election so the Republicans changed the rules. An analysis by the News & Observer showed that if the new district representation scheme had been in effect in November, Republicans would have retained control of the board even though Democrats received 30,000 more votes in the county than Republicans.
Voters clearly preferred Democrats in Wake County races last fall and the Republicans simply can’t stand for that so they are using and abusing their legislative authority to seize power back from the Democrats —and the voters.
It’s not merely a redistricting change, it’s a coup of sorts, seizing political control to thwart the will of the people.
And it’s not an isolated case. The Senate has also approved a bill that would change the way the Greensboro City Council is elected because there are too many Democrats in office there too. Bills to change the election rules and composition of several other local boards are also pending and Republicans redrew the Wake County School Board districts last session—after progressive forces successfully recaptured control of the board from the conservative majority in the 2011 election.
Voters don’t matter. Consolidating and expanding power is all that matters and despite the media attention and the best efforts of committed activists, much of the general public still hasn’t realized what has happened.
Headlines and television stories about changes to local election laws and districts and new voting patterns don’t stop people in their tracks. Local elections are not on most peoples’ minds in April. It sounds at first like arcane political maneuvering, not something that affects your life.
But it has serious implications for your schools, your parks, your environment, and the quality of life in your community. The Republican General Assembly just took away the right of people in Wake County to vote for all their county commissioners that make huge decisions on their behalf.
And there’s no indication that the power-grabbing is over. There are more signs that it’s just getting started. Wake County and Greensboro are only the beginning. Any local board controlled by Democrats is at risk.
In 2013 the General Assembly passed voter suppression legislation to make it more difficult for many people to vote. Now they are taking the next step when it comes to local elections. They are making it harder for people’s vote to count even if they cast it.
It’s all about power, and distorting democracy for their political gain. Never mind what the people want.