Ruling won’t untangle districts and partisanship

I held my nose and voted for Roy Cooper in 2016 because of the stink of gerrymandering.

Defeating Gov. McCrory was the best way I knew to tell Republican legislators they had gone too far in doing what politicians always do: using public power for partisan advantage. I get it guys, but come on, dial it back.

Instead, they dug in their heels, leading to last week’s unanimous decision by a three judge panel throwing out existing state maps and demanding new ones by Sept. 18.

On one level, I’m happy with the decision. Anything that forces legislators to try again and energizes the debate around better ways to draw the maps is good.

But I doubt it will finally resolve the issue. As long as we artificially consign voters to made-up districts – necessary for local governance – and don’t, say, have statewide votes that award representation by party vote, the system will always be political, partisan and somewhat unfair. The courts cannot rise above this grubby reality.

That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court held last month in another case involving North Carolina’s maps. In a 5-4 ruling, it said that fixing election districts was beyond its authority and competence.

Note that the decision fell along partisan lines, with the Court’s five conservatives outpolling its four liberals. It’s impossible to escape politics.

More important, the high court ruled that even when it agrees that politicians have misused their authority for partisan advantage, it does not have the tools to impose a specific solution.

It is easy to see that the current maps need correction, but hard to say what standards – besides those we already have - should be applied to produce the perfect outcome.

Although it found more room to intercede than the high court, the North Carolina court’s decision reinforced that stance. It argued that extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the state Constitution because it thwarts the will of the people to pick legislators who will represent their views.

But note that many of the cases it cited establishing this high-minded idea were heard during some of the darkest, Jim Crow days of our state’s history. The principle that, “Our government is founded on the will of the people. Their will is expressed by the ballot,” was announced in a case from 1875.

The case establishing that “all acts providing for elections … [should] tend to promote a fair election or expression of this popular will,” was decided in 1896, just before the white supremacy campaign stripped blacks of most voting rights.

This history reminds us that even our bedrock principles are subject to broad interpretation, that the clarion call of fundamental rights is inescapably muddied by all too human realities.

Anyone who says they have a single meaning that can be translated into a single course of action is not only misguided, but dangerous.

For that matter, what is a stronger impediment to the full expression of the people’s will than the two-party system which fundamentally constrains our choices?

The recent ruling tacitly acknowledges this by failing to lay out a precise method for drawing the new maps.

Already, we see some Democrats pulling back from an earlier compromise – the FAIR Act – because it now doesn’t seem fair enough to them.

Given the recent decision, they think they can get more.

That’s politics.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.