What Republicans stole from North Carolina

Next year, for the first time in several years, North Carolina voters will cast ballots in races with fairly drawn legislative maps that offer all voters a full voice in their future. It’s why everyone from local voting rights advocates to former president Barack Obama celebrated a Wake County Superior Court ruling Tuesday that Republican-drawn legislative maps are unconstitutional. Republicans will not appeal the Common Cause v Lewis decision.

That’s good news to anyone who rues gerrymandering, regardless of the party that’s doing it. So yes, you should be celebrating.

But you also should be angry.

Today, before we look forward to fairer elections in North Carolina, let’s remember exactly what’s happened in our state the last half-decade. In their deliberate and damning ruling Tuesday, one Republican and two Democratic judges laid it all out for us. They explained how Republican lawmakers were guilty of “specifically and systematically designing the contours of the election districts for partisan purposes and a desire to preserve power.” They described, in nearly 300 exhaustive pages, how the tactics violated our state constitution’s free elections clause, its equal protection clause, and the right to free expression and assembly.

We were, quite simply, cheated. It was gerrymandering with more precision and more scope than this state has seen, even during the decades Democrats were in power. It was legal — until Tuesday, at least — but it was essentially a political crime, a theft of votes, something far more destructive than last year’s 9th District ballot fraud that likely will send people to jail.

But the tilted maps didn’t just steal the integrity of elections. They stole what North Carolina used to be. Under a Republican super-majority, we became a state that once again jumped to discriminate against its residents, one that was no longer was a model for environmental programs and successes, one that occupied the headlines and late-night jokes that used to be reserved for other states.

Fair maps — and fairer elections — might have changed some of that.

We likely wouldn’t have had Amendment One, a law that made North Carolina the last state to discriminate against gays and lesbian by banning same-sex marriage.

We may not have had HB2, a harshly discriminatory law that cost the state its reputation along with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic investment.

We certainly wouldn’t have had a supermajority of Republicans regularly overreaching with laws that courts struck down, and breaking legislative norms and rules so that they could push through an agenda without opposition.

That arrogance was especially on display with gerrymandering. Not only did Republicans rig legislative and congressional maps, they did so brazenly and with the belief it was appropriate because Republicans should be leading North Carolina. It’s the kind of self-affirming blindness that comes when there aren’t enough people to tell you no.

There’s little reason to believe Republicans wouldn’t try to get it all back if they achieved a new supermajority in the General Assembly or a majority on the state Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on partisan gerrymandering. So while you should be angry about the injustice afflicted on our state, you also should be vigilant. The maps will be fairer this next election, but the stakes will be just as high.