It’s ironic that during one of the prettiest springs North Carolina has had in years, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc in our state. A million people are out of work and hundreds are dead. “Normal” is a half-forgotten memory, and we’re calling into question what new accommodations we must simply get used to in the weeks, months and possibly years ahead. Among them is the quite open question of what the future will be for representative democracy in North Carolina. If, indeed, there is to be one.
In roughly six months’ time, as our nation faces arguably the most important election of our lifetimes, so too will North Carolina face the culmination of a decade-long fight to preserve – or perhaps, restore – democracy as we know it. The last nine years have tested the resilience of our state’s legal and political system in defending the most basic premises of representative democracy: the idea of one person, one vote; fundamental equality under the law; and majority rule. Our constitutional system of checks-and-balances was very nearly short-circuited in Raleigh along the way. It has not yet been proven successful.
In 2011, North Carolina Republicans gerrymandered themselves into a supermajority in our state legislature. With the stroke of a pen, they drew themselves districts that, in the subsequent 2012 cycle, effectively put an end to competitive legislative elections across most of the state. North Carolina’s Congressional delegation flipped overnight from 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans to 4 and 9 (and later, 3 and 10), despite close to a 50/50 split in actual votes. A considerable component of the new maps involved diluting the influence of voters of color until their electoral power was negligible. At one point, for example, the Republican map split North Carolina A&T – the country’s largest HBCU – in half, dividing it between two districts. In a telling coincidence, the same Republican legislature also closed polling sites in minority-heavy neighborhoods and rammed through a voter ID law that a federal judge later described as targeting black voters “with near surgical precision.”
There has been a decade of legal battling over the North Carolina gerrymander and voter suppression strategy, bouncing from court to court over the ensuing years. It has been wearying and tedious, almost requiring a law degree – or perhaps a political career – to accurately follow. Finally, in 2019, the Supreme Court dealt its final opinion: no help would be forthcoming from Washington. In Rucho v Common Cause, a 5-4 Court held that while partisan gerrymandering may be “incompatible with democratic principles,” any remedy was simply beyond the remit of the judicial branch. After declaring that court intervention was no longer necessary to protect democracy from racist politicians in Shelby County v Holder, the Court now said that even if it were, they wouldn’t interfere. Democracy is all fine and good, they said – it’s simply not the American government’s job to preserve it.
And that was almost it, until a North Carolina state court stepped in to do what the United States Supreme Court would not and ordered new maps drawn. While this could be construed as a victory for federalism, it was really more of a fluke. North Carolina Republicans had tried very hard to seize control of the state court system, including instituting partisan judicial elections and manipulating judicial voting districts in ways that comically backfired.
North Carolina will face its first truly competitive election cycle in almost a decade this November. With all seats in the state legislature up for grabs, the court-ordered redistricting has put many of them in play for the very first time since the 2011 gerrymander. The maps are still tilted Republican, particularly in the state senate (they were, after all, drawn by the same authors of the gerrymander). But there is now a plausible path for Democrats to retake majorities of one chamber or another, given a large enough wave of Democratic voter turnout.
In fact, a majority of North Carolinians are already voting for Democrats – and it isn’t working. In 2018, North Carolina Democrats won a clear majority of the statewide vote for both the state House and Senate. But not only did they not win a majority, they were barely able to break the Republican supermajority. (In the Senate, by just one seat.) This tracks with other states’ experience, too. In Virginia, Democrats had to out-perform by double-digits just to break the racially gerrymandered Republican majorities there by a single seat in either chamber. It turns out, gerrymanders work. North Carolina’s court-ordered redistricting, as imperfect as it was, makes this our state’s first – and likely only – chance to break this toxic cycle and return small-d democratic government to our state.
Unfortunately, the prospect of large-scale voter turnout is one of the many things that COVID-19 is now forcing all of us to reconsider. Will traditional voting even be viable? Will it be safe?
Fewer than 5% of North Carolinians take advantage of mail-in absentee ballots, and the process for getting one can be onerous and time-consuming. COVID-19 also will not impact every community’s political representation equally. For reasons no one has yet properly investigated, COVID seems particularly hazardous to Black people. Black North Carolinians make up 22% of the population, but account for over a third of our state’s positive COVID caseload, as well as its deaths. North Carolina’s Black community is being devastated by COVID, while a party with not a single legislator of color sits in power.
I am a millennial. That means that two of the five presidential elections I have voted in have been “won” by the losing candidate due to a historical accident we call the Electoral College. I am far too young to have any memory of the Jim Crow South, but as Samuel Clemens might say, that history rhymes today. The survivors of that era, our parents and grandparents, remind us that many things have changed. But one thing that hasn’t is the prospect – and, for some, the allure – of white minority rule, by any means necessary.
America today faces many questions about her future. An overriding one is the continued legitimacy of our basic institutions, many of which have been steadily eroding my entire life. When democracy no longer “works,” what then? What are we expected to do? What are our continued obligations as citizens? From what do our loyalties thus derive?
These are the questions we face this year in North Carolina, if not in America as a whole. Democracy itself is on the ballot – and if you aren’t terrified at the prospect of what we might choose, I envy you.