Another election? Here’s whom to blame

The Observer editorial board

Ready for another legislative election? Federal judges ordered one this week.
Ready for another legislative election? Federal judges ordered one this week. Charlotte Observer

Another election. Yay.

We’re having a hard time imagining many people who are joyful about the prospect of a surprise special legislative election next year. But that’s what a three-judge U.S. District Court panel ordered Tuesday as part of its fix for North Carolina’s perpetually gerrymandered state House and Senate maps.

The judges said that 28 of the state’s legislative districts must be redrawn by March 15 – an order that will likely affect several more districts. Every state legislator whose district is changed will be subject to a primary next August or September, then a general election next November. That includes lawmakers who won races less than a month ago.

It was a surprising ruling, but it was the right ruling. Citizens should not have their votes diluted by maps that are drawn to preserve a party’s power. We wrote that when N.C. Democrats were in charge. It’s just as true now.

But if you’re like us, you’re probably a bit wrung out from the divisive election we’re still putting to bed in North Carolina. And unless you’re a losing candidate who might want another shot, you’re probably not thrilled about this re-do.

So why are we here? Because Republicans, like Democrats before them, decided to draw legislative maps in 2011 that gave them an electoral advantage. But unlike Democrats, the Republicans’ maps disenfranchised African-American voters by packing more into majority-black districts.

It wasn’t just state districts that were problematic. In February, federal judges ruled that North Carolina’s Republican-drawn congressional map also was unconstitutional. After criticizing judges and vowing an appeal, Republicans instead delivered a new congressional map less than two weeks later. That redrawing looked better, with districts that were notably more compact, but the new map ensured Republican dominance about as much as the previous map.

You can bet something similar will happen now with state legislative districts. Our predicton: Republicans will submit a new map that they hope does just enough to get the courts off their backs, but not enough to actually feature real competition between the two parties.

There’s a better way. This past session, 63 N.C. House members – both Republicans and Democrats – co-sponsored House Bill 92, which would have established a nonpartisan Redistricting Commission whose members would be chosen by both parties. Those 63 House members made up a majority, but the bill never made it to a vote.

Similar redistricting reform efforts have been supported in the past by Republicans, including N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro-tem Phil Berger. But whenever a party takes control, the prospect of reform suddenly becomes less appealing to its members.

Tuesday’s federal court ruling won’t change that, even if it does provide an incremental improvement in racial gerrymandering. Our best hope: That someday, enough lawmakers will see the greater good of redistricting reform instead of their own small self-interest.