The court’s signal to North Carolina

The Observer editorial board

North Carolina’s legislative and congressional maps steal voting power from minorities.
North Carolina’s legislative and congressional maps steal voting power from minorities. CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

North Carolina lawmakers now have one more reason to revisit the state’s discriminatory legislative and congressional maps: The U.S. Supreme Court seems inclined to eventually make them do so.

The Court ruled 5-4 last week that Alabama wrongly packs black voters into too few legislative districts, diluting their votes. It’s a decision that might be instructive to N.C. Republicans, who like Democrats before them have drawn legislative districts that give their party the best chance of staying in power.

Republicans, however, have taken the tactic to a new level of distastefulness, and the state’s 2011 map is being challenged on similar grounds as the Alabama case. The N.C. challenge is pending before the Supreme Court.

In Alabama, like North Carolina, lawmakers have insisted that their districts are lawful. In fact, Alabama’s attorneys argued to the Supreme Court that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required those who drew the voting maps to maintain certain percentages of black voters in majority black districts. That, attorneys said, forced lawmakers to cluster minorities into fewer districts.

The Court, and specifically Justice Stephen Breyer, rejected that rationale. The Voting Rights Act doesn’t require a specific minority percentage, Breyer wrote, but it does require that Alabama “maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice.”

The same should apply to North Carolina. Plaintiffs here argue that N.C. lawmakers used similar racial percentage goals in drawing the 2011 maps, with minorities getting jammed into a handful of districts while other districts were made more white and friendly to GOP candidates. The result is not only that minorities are disenfranchised, but that most N.C. districts are non-competitive, leaving voters pretty much irrelevant.

The justices will be ruling on the first issue, but lawmakers can repair both problems with bills that would require a non-partisan approach to mapmaking. One of those, N.C. House Bill 92, is modeled on an Iowa plan that calls for redistricting maps to be crafted by non-partisan legislative staffers, beginning with the 2020 U.S. Census. A similar bill passed the N.C. House in 2011 but failed in the Senate, where Republican leaders again are sour on anything that might cost the party votes.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte and GOP Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville have proposed an alternative – a bill that delays the nonpartisan district drawing until 2031. That delayed date essentially tempts lawmakers from both parties to vote for what’s right, because who knows if their party will be in power that far in the future?

What would be best, however, is if lawmakers didn’t wait so long. The Supreme Court is sending Alabama’s map back to the mapmakers. North Carolina should do the same before the justices make them.