This One Weird Trick for Fair Voting Districts will Change Your Life

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has affirmed the 4th Circuit’s ruling that North Carolina’s state legislative districts violated the US Constitution because they were racial gerrymanders, although we still do not know if NC will have special elections for the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) in 2017.  

SCOTUS has now ruled against the NCGA three times in a row in gerrymandering cases as more fully explained by the brilliant Amy Worley HERE.

So – yeah! We won, right?!?!?

Well, yes . . but even with these court rulings, it is not the end of the story.  Even though the NCGA has struck out three times, it will still be up to the NCGA to interpret and apply the Supreme Court decisions.  NC districts have been struck down by SCOTUS before (in the 1980s and 1990s) – and that did not stop gerrymandering.  

We still need redistricting reform in North Carolina and the only way to do that is to elect candidates to the NCGA who support fair districts for North Carolina.  

Stuff you Oughta Know about Redistricting in North Carolina

North Carolina is one of a handful of states in which the state legislature draws districts with very few guidelines, and the governor cannot veto the district maps.

North Carolina’s primary governing law for redistricting is Art. II of the NC State Constitution, which gives the NCGA the authority to draw voting districts with few restrictions on the process or criteria to be used for drawing the districts. The NC state legislature can use the address of incumbents, party affiliation, voting history, and other demographic information to draw the districts in their own favor.

The district maps are subject to the US Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, but they are not required to be impartial or evenhanded. Reasonable minds can differ on what the US Constitution requires – so that gives the NCGA a lot of latitude.  North Carolina does not have any sort of independent redistricting commission, as some states do.

We need to change the law so that North Carolina has a transparent, unbiased redistricting process using impartial, fair redistricting criteria.

In order to amend the state constitution, we need 3/5 of the House and 3/5 of the Senate to vote in favor for the constitutional amendment and then it goes on the ballot for ratification by the voters.  If we want real change to how district are drawn, the voters of NC are going to have to demand it.

 Special note for people from California: Welcome!  We are so glad you are here. No, we don’t have citizen ballot initiatives here.  I know that is how you did it in California, but our state law just isn’t set up like that. I know it is frustrating, but please don’t go back to California. We need you.

What can you do TODAY?

Even if the perfect redistricting bill fell from heaven into our laps, it would not matter if the NCGA would not vote for it.  We are going to have to figure out a way to work together on this. Consider starting a dialogue with your representatives.

Call your representatives in the NCGA, and ask them to support an open, unbiased redistricting process using impartial, fair redistricting criteria that excludes the use of partisan data (and that specifically does not allow using the address of incumbents).

Currently, there are two redistricting bills in the NCGA that should be exempted from the “crossover” requirement because they involve amending the NC State Constitution. Both bills have some good qualities, one was sponsored by a Republican and one was sponsored by a Democrat.

Ask your reps if they would be willing to support one of these bills. If they do not support either of these, ask them what criteria and process they would want to see in a redistricting bill in order to support it.  You can tell them why you support fair voting districts.

There are lots of different ways that states do redistricting – you can find out more here and here.

A note about the “Iowa” modelIowa has a unique approach to redistricting where legislative staffers draw the districts using mainly population numbers. This model has yielded competitive districts in Iowa, but it has also been criticised for a lack of transparency and racial inequity.  The “Iowa” model has been suggested by some as the solution to redistricting reform in North Carolina.   This author would gently suggest the Iowa model’s problems with racial equality would be unlikely to improve if enacted here, given North Carolina’s history of Racial gerrymandering.  At the same time almost anything would be better than what we have now, so if the Iowa model is your thing –  do what you wanna do. 

Hey, want to know more about racial gerrymandering vs. partisan gerrymandering?

The cases decided in recent weeks were overturned on the basis of racial gerrymandering.  However, NC’s districts are still being challenged for partisan gerrymandering.

Racial gerrymandering and partisan gerrymandering have historically been treated differently by the courts – but the function of each of them is essentially the same: they are both tools used by the politicians in power to keep their power and to dilute the power of other groups of people. The politicians drawing the maps use both racial gerrymandering and partisan gerrymandering in order to draw themselves “safe” districts and consolidate their party’s power.

Historically, the Supreme Court has not wanted to interfere with issues that it deems to be “political” issues so it has not yet ever ruled that deliberate partisan gerrymandering is necessarily unconstitutional. The Court has suggested in opinions that extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, but it has never ruled on a standard. This may be changing — a new group of cases (including the Common Cause / League of Women Voters of North Carolina case which has yet to go to trial) are challenging partisan gerrymandering as impermissible under the U.S. Constitution.

In light of these N.C. cases, it is worth noting the Wisconsin partisan gerrymandering case, Whitford v. Gill, which has been appealed to SCOTUS. In Whitford, a three-judge panel ruled that Wisconsin’s districts were unconstitutional based because of PARTISAN gerrymandering, stating the “First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause protect a citizen against state discrimination as to the weight of his or her vote when that discrimination is based on the political preferences of the voter.”  

So, what is that “One Weird Trick”?

NC voters have to demand a commitment from candidates for the NCGA that they will vote for redistricting reform based on a transparent, unbiased redistricting process using impartial, fair redistricting criteria.  . .  and make those politicians keep that promise! It is just that easy, and just that hard.

An earlier version of portions of this post were published previously here.