North Carolina’s Republican legislators unconstitutionally packed black voters into two congressional districts, making other districts whiter, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday. So why should you care?
1. Republican legislators around the South are doing the same thing to varying degrees to help preserve or boost their electoral gains. That’s helping drive polarization in Congress, because it produces districts that are extremely safe for either Democrats or Republicans. Representing homogenous districts of like-minded constituents, members of Congress have no incentive for compromise – or for anything other than tearing down the other party. Monday’s decision is a warning shot to states that racial gerrymandering may be ending soon.
2. The ruling appears to heighten the chances that two other sets of North Carolina maps will be struck down. Dozens of the state’s 170 legislative districts were drawn with the same race-conscious approach as the court rebuked. That case is on the Supreme Court’s docket for Thursday, so we could learn soon if that map will have to be redrawn and new elections held this year. If so, it could affect the makeup of the N.C. legislature.
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Also, when a lower court threw out the congressional districts, the legislature drew a new set. That map is now being challenged for gerrymandering based on party, not race, and Monday’s ruling could give plaintiffs there a boost.
3. Finally, the Supreme Court’s decision makes the case, again and forcefully, that politicians, be they Democrats or Republicans, are incapable of drawing fair and impartial lines. North Carolina’s voters would be much better served if a bipartisan or nonpartisan independent commission did the work, as happens in some other states. That would produce a General Assembly and congressional delegation that more closely reflects, and so better represents, the closely divided partisan makeup of our purple state.
The case involved the 1st District, in the northeastern part of the state, and the 12th District, which ran from Charlotte to Greensboro. The court unanimously ruled that the 1st District was unconstitutional. Legislators said they had to pack black voters in there to have a black candidate elected. But the court pointed out that black candidates have been winning that district for years with substantial support from white voters, so a majority-black district wasn’t needed.
Legislators, led by Mecklenburg’s then-Sen. Bob Rucho, argued that the 12th District was drawn the way it was to pack Democrats, not African-Americans, into it. The courts found substantial evidence to undercut that argument.
Rucho’s argument, though, raises a vital question: Under what logic is it unconstitutional to use race in drawing maps but OK to use political party? Besides the difficulty of distinguishing one motive from the other, partisan gerrymandering undercuts fairness and dilutes voter participation even more than racial gerrymandering does.
The court may well cross that bridge next. Until then, voters of all political stripes should call on legislators to get out of the map-drawing business – and stop rigging the elections to further their own careers.