Progress in rooting out North Carolina’s gerrymandered voting districts hasn’t always occurred in a straight line. But the trend – thanks to federal judges honoring their duty to uphold the Constitution – bodes well for giving all voters an equal chance to help choose their leaders.
That’s the essence of a democratic system in which each of us, even those who lack the traditional means of influence such as money and connections, has a voice and thus a role in setting the course of government in line with our values and priorities.
The latest turn in the gerrymandering saga can be chalked up as a clear victory for advocates of fair elections.
A panel of three judges, sitting in federal District Court in Greensboro, last week followed through on its previous finding that voting districts drawn in 2011 by the Republican-controlled General Assembly for its own members unconstitutionally had devalued the voting strength of African-Americans.
The legislators’ aim was to boost Republican candidates by undercutting voters who typically favor Democrats.
That 2016 ruling – which identified racial gerrymandering in 28 of the 170 legislative districts — was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. As directed, legislators proceeded to redraw the maps. But attorneys for the group of voters who had filed the original challenge went back to court, arguing that gerrymandering or other unconstitutional flaws still were evident in several of the districts.
The federal panel then appointed a so-called special master, Stanford University law professor Nathaniel Persily, to propose revisions to the district maps that would get them over the constitutional bar.
Legislators argued that Persily’s maps were themselves tainted by racial considerations and by favoritism toward Democrats.
But on Jan. 19, Judges James Wynn, Thomas Schroeder and Catherine Eagles (two of them appointed by President Obama and one by President George W. Bush) issued a decision  soundly rejecting those complaints. They declared that the districts as modified by Persily would be the ones used during this year’s election cycle, when all 50 state Senate and 120 House seats will be on the ballot.
Again, the protests from legislative redistricting chiefs were immediate and loud. They said they would ask the Supreme Court to intervene. Their reaction called to mind a bit of folk wisdom: It’s the hit dog that hollers.
Or to put it another way, they were caught in the act of skewing district lines to give Republican candidates an unfair advantage at the expense of black voters and in defiance of the laws against racial discrimination. No, they didn’t like it. But unless the Supreme Court says otherwise, they’ll have to live with it.
Attention to be paid
An expert who follows these matters, law professor Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine, sees a good chance  that legislators’ request for a stay from the high court will be turned away. That’s because the justices already have agreed that the maps used for legislative elections since 2012 were shot through with racial gerrymandering, helping Republicans pile up veto-proof majorities far exceeding their proportion among registered voters.
Further, Hasen notes, the special master has offered ready-to-roll versions of the maps that cure the unconstitutional defects – after legislators flubbed a chance to do the job themselves.
If that analysis proves correct, Republican legislative candidates this year could wind up having to pay attention to some voters whom they’ve been able to disregard because those voters were packed into weirdly shaped districts foreordained to elect Democrats. Or, because those Democratic-leaning voters (African-American, according to the legislature’s own map-drawing methodology) were scattered across districts where Republicans were destined to prevail.
That all amounts to a healthy step in the direction of more accountable government where conservatives may even feel an occasional impulse to compromise with their progressive colleagues across the aisle – a prerequisite for pulling North Carolina out of its reckless rightward lurch of recent years. If that were to happen, the N.C. Council of Churches, which advocates for policies of social and economic justice giving all the state’s residents a fair chance to live fulfilling lives, would help lead the cheers.
On another front in the gerrymandering disputes, recent good news has been tempered by the Supreme Court’s response – a response that Hasen, for one, anticipated.
Another three-judge panel (also including Wynn, a North Carolinian detailed from his regular duties on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) made big news on Jan. 9 with its finding that the state’s congressional districts had been unfairly drawn to punish Democrats, purely and simply because of their party alignment.
It was said to have been the first time that a federal court had rejected congressional districts because partisan gerrymandering exceeded what the Constitution could tolerate, depriving Democratic voters of their right to equal protection. The panel ordered legislators to rework the district maps, but the court in Washington agreed to stop that ruling from taking effect.
As it happens, the justices already are considering two other cases, one brought by Democrats in Wisconsin and the other by Republicans in Maryland, that could lead to the first-ever definition of when the inherently political process of redistricting has veered over the line into impermissible partisanship. The thinking is that the North Carolina case will be kept on hold until the two others are decided and then settled in that light.
Given the Supreme Court’s ideological split and its record of ambivalence on the subject of partisan gerrymandering – along the lines of “We don’t like it but we aren’t sure the courts can fix it” – it’s hard to predict how North Carolina’s situation will pan out.
What we know is what the three-judge panel laid out in exhaustive detail: Our 13-member congressional delegation is wildly out of whack in its partisan breakdown, due in large part to the boundaries of voting districts.
In the elections of 2016, for instance, Republican candidates took 10 of the seats while collecting only 54 percent of the statewide vote. And as The News & Observer’s Rob Christensen noted in this Jan. 21 column  about the ills of gerrymandering, none of the races could be called competitive. In not a single race was the margin between winner and loser less than 10 percent.
In other words, the Republican majority in Congress – a majority that has aided and abetted President Trump’s year-long reign of error – has been bolstered by tactics that a bipartisan panel of three respected federal judges has said that under the Constitution, we shouldn’t have to stomach. However it’s sliced and whatever the outcome, that ruling gave us another reason to think we’re making progress toward redeeming our democracy.
Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches .