The three federal judges could have just come right out and said it: The Republicans who rule the N.C. General Assembly have elevated foot-dragging to a fine art. Their stall tactics take the cake.
Instead, the trio overseeing the legislature’s efforts to draw new voting district maps seems to have angled for another prize – for understatement.
Consider this masterpiece of tact from their latest ruling: “The General Assembly’s failure to comply with this Court’s August 2016 order or to take any apparent action since the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed this Court’s judgment tends to indicate that the General Assembly does not appreciate the need to move promptly to cure the unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in the 2011 districting plans.”
In other words, the judges know a legislative version of Muhammad Ali’s old rope-a-dope maneuver – by which he lured opponents into tiring themselves out before he took them out – when they see it.
Judges James Wynn Jr., Thomas Schroeder and Catherine Eagles, sitting as a U.S. District Court panel, were responding to the latest twists in challenges to the boundaries for state Senate and House districts.
The challengers have argued – not surprisingly – that with 28 of the 170 districts found to be infected by unconstitutional gerrymandering, and with the shape of many other districts also called into question like puzzle pieces that no longer fit, the legislature should be compelled to revise the maps sooner rather than later. And then, to hold elections using the new maps. Pronto.
After all, they’ve maintained, this legislature turns out to have been operating under a cloud of illegitimacy ever since the once-a-decade mandatory redistricting process in 2011. That happens to have been the year when Republicans took charge of both legislative chambers for the first time in a century and took advantage by crafting maps that have cemented their hold on power.
A year later…
The three trial judges first turned thumbs-down on the maps a year ago, agreeing with plaintiffs that the redistricting plans unfairly treated African-American voters as pawns to enhance Republican prospects.
The prevailing tactic was to concentrate those voters in a small set of districts grotesquely shaped to include areas with relatively high black populations. Given that African-American voters tend to lean Democratic, those districts would easily elect Democrats while Republicans would have an edge elsewhere.
That’s the essence of racial gerrymandering – and it’s been a prescription for GOP majorities that have carried out a dramatic rightward shift in state policies, especially via tax cuts benefiting the well-off while depriving the state of revenue.
The trial court wanted new districts to be drawn by March 15 of this year. Special elections then were to be held, with primaries in late summer and the general election this fall – a year ahead of the normal schedule.
That approach was set aside when the legislative defendants obtained a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, pending the high court’s consideration of whether racial gerrymandering had indeed occurred.
But legislative chiefs were in for what must have been a rude surprise. In June, the Supreme Court upheld the judges’ finding that the districts would have to be redrawn because of the unconstitutional gerrymanders. What remained to be decided was the timetable for the remapping and elections to follow. The Supreme Court told the judges down in North Carolina to figure it out.
Which is what they did in their ruling of July 31 – the one in which they used such restraint to describe the legislature’s passive aggression.
Instead of letting the remap drag out until mid-November, as legislators proposed, the judges set a deadline of September 1.
The challengers to the current maps – challengers represented by the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, whose complaints now have been upheld from top to bottom – had sought a deadline of Aug. 11. On that, the judges didn’t bite, although they agreed that “constitutionally adequate districts should be enacted as quickly as possible to protect the rights of North Carolina citizens.”
They also stressed the need to “minimize any chilling effect on political participation attributable to the continuing absence of a [constitutional] districting plan.” That spoke to the challengers’ concern that further delay in finalizing legal maps would limit the number of people willing and able to run as candidates in the new districts, thus playing into Republican hands. It’s basic politics that mounting a viable campaign requires time to organize and raise money.
“Legislative Defendants have offered no evidence to support their contention that they need three-and-a-half more months to remedy the constitutional violations identified by this Court almost a year ago,” the judges said in setting the Sept. 1 deadline, “nor have they offered any evidence that they have not begun to evaluate what the revised districts might look like.”
Fortunately, the trial judges are insisting that legislators maintain a complete record of the process – not only what was decided, but how, why and by whom.
That means the mappers may have to defend their criteria for drawing the new districts – criteria adopted at a follow-up meeting of the redistricting panel on Aug. 10.
Although the standards seemed to promise that districts would not be given the kind of bizarre shapes that often signal gerrymandering, Democratic members were sufficiently skeptical to vote against most of them. For example, they objected to allowing boundaries to be drawn so as to protect incumbents — a feature especially benefiting the Republican majority that gained power on the basis of unconstitutional maps. Committee leaders said the next step will be to prepare draft maps that will be subject to a further round of public review.
Much at stake
It’s hard to overstate the importance of fair districting schemes to the integrity of our democratic system.
Districting decisions inevitably can work to the advantage of one party or another, and it’s perhaps not reasonable to expect the party in charge to go out of its way to help the other one.
Still, an approach that encourages competitive races – now in short supply — is bound to make politicians more responsive to their constituents. It’s bound to promote a more robust exchange of viewpoints and a willingness to compromise. And it bolsters the key principle of one person, one vote – the guarantee that each voter will have a more or less equal chance to influence the choice of his or her elected officials.
Having that chance is especially important to people who may lack the money, status or connections that tend to give more privileged folks an edge in our civic push and pull, or who may belong to segments of our society that continue to deal with a legacy of discrimination – people with whom the Council of Churches stands in solidarity.
Judges who use laws and the Constitution to root out gerrymandering, and legislators who abide by their rulings in good faith, are doing their duty to help give all of our citizens an equal voice at the polls and thus to reaffirm the ideals of our system of government.
Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.