Falling short on redistricting

by | Oct 12, 2019 | Redistricting

This was the news I’d been waiting for all summer. The partisan gerrymandering case heard in state court was decided! I’m a nerd, more excited about a court decision than the new Spider-Man movie, but for 9 years I’ve worried about my home state because of the regressive legislation it’s enacted, from Amendment One to House Bill 2. The list of legislative travesties is long and embarrassing, and I want the unflattering national press to stop, before my daughters decide to move somewhere more sane, like South Carolina. I can’t abide the prospect of 10 generations of our North Carolina family chain being broken by lunacy in the legislature!  The resolution of this case could be a turning point that puts our state back on track.

Thankfully, a NC Superior Court issued instructions to the Legislature to draw new maps to cure unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders so we can have fair districts for elections in 2020. To top it off, the Court would have a redistricting expert to help them evaluate the result. Hallelujah!! 

I attentively watched this process unfold. Although Democrats were assigned to the redistricting committees in both the House & Senate, the process was dominated by Republicans who have  super majorities in committees (a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house.) The maps have passed and been sent to the Court for approval. Democrats largely voted against the remedial maps, although 13 Democratic Senators voted with Republicans to approve the map in their chamber.

As invested as I am in the outcome, I needed to know if the proposed maps were fair. Would the outcome of our elections continue to be predetermined by rigged maps? I read as much as I could and found an insightful “friend of the court” brief filed in the case by Professor Samuel Wang, with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, an independent voice not involved in the litigation. He saw problems with both the outcome and process used by the redistricting committees. His analysis showed that the maps still contain significant proRepublican partisan bias. WHAT? Eliminating this bias was arguably the whole point of the lawsuit! Another expert, Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a University of Chicago law school professor, also found that while better, the new maps are “still reasonably far from treating both parties equally.”

Disappointed that the remedial maps still suffered from proRepublican bias, I couldn’t shake my dismay and anger that 13 Democratic Senators voted with Republicans.  Why would they have done this? I can speculate. First, I wonder if they possessed the expertise needed to discern that the randomly generated base maps advanced by the Republicans would not cure the partisan bias, but in fact perpetuate it. Second, they failed to anticipate the cunning of their Republican colleagues, who already had data on the partisan lean of the base maps, and knew they would be advantageous to Republicans.  Third, Senate Democratic leadership was surprisingly supportive of the process and outcome. Last and most troubling, some of the seats are so safe that their current occupants may actually like the maps. Changes to their districts to make the overall map more fair could jeopardize comfortable sinecures.

The possibility of such a betrayal is excruciating. I don’t want to believe it, but apparently, it’s all too possible. Last week, a story broke of a leaked audio recording of an ALEC meeting, attended by NC Republican legislators. A panel discussion was titled “How to Survive Redistricting.” What a timely topic for our legislators! Panelists described a way to win support for a new map:  create very safe seats for a few Democrats, which insures their support for an overall redistricting plan. This tactic provides enough Democratic buy-in to give the maps a veneer of “bipartisanship.” This plays well to the public, even as it hides continuing unfairness.  Panelists “taught lawmakers to conceal the true intent of their maps and appear to play by the rules” and “to make their processes appear as open as possible, even though they are driven by partisanship behind closed doors.” I have to admit that deception like this could easily have occurred in our own redistricting process, given the history of bad faith dealing by Republicans in our legislature.

The following 13 Democratic Senators voted for the redistricted maps: Dan Blue, Jay Chaudhuri, Ben Clark, Don Davis, Kirk deViere, Toby Fitch, Valerie Foushee, Natasha Marcus, Floyd McKissick, Harper Peterson, Gladys Robinson, Joyce Waddell, and Mike Woodard. Many of these Senators are in safe seats, and a few are freshmen legislators who could be especially vulnerable to pressure from leadership. Whether they got played, or were tempted by safe districts, neither look is good.

Rank and file Democrats have been told that, with hard work,  Democrats can make gains in the General Assembly in the 2020 election, even with only ever-so-slightly fairer maps in place. Balance can be restored, embarrassing legislation stopped.  I hope so. Because we need to elect more people with the wisdom to vote against anything other than a truly unbiased map, especially when afforded the backstop of a Court that will do it if the Legislature can’t. 

I admire the brave Senators who broke from their leadership and voted against their chamber’s maps: Michael Garrett, Jeff Jackson, Paul Lowe, Mujtaba A. Mohammed, Wiley Nickel, Sam Searcy, Erica Smith, and Terry Van Duyn.  

I’m not alone in hoping that someday soon NC will be recognizable again as the moderately progressive, sane state I grew up in. I want my daughters to be proud to be from NC, the way I’ve always been. My faith and hope is again with the Court, still thankfully involved.  With their decision likely any day now, I hope I can relax and go see Spider-Man.

Martha Shafer is a lifetime resident of North Carolina, a retired healthcare executive, community volunteer and former Democratic candidate for HD62.


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