The latest news from the federal courts about the unconstitutional racially gerrymandered General Assembly districts and the response to it from legislative leaders makes one thing clearer than ever.
The folks in charge of the House and Senate are terribly afraid of what will happen if our elections are fairer, if every district is not gerrymandered by race and partisan considerations to all but guarantee that their supermajorities will remain in place, and if the voters have a slightly better chance at electing who they want instead of having their representatives chosen for them.
That’s the only conclusion you can draw from the bitter reaction from legislative leaders to their latest setback in the courts — that they are scared — as a three-judge panel brushed aside lawmakers’ objections and hired an outside expert to redraw several districts lawmakers drew after their original maps were struck down as unconstitutional because of the role race played in their development.
A spokesperson for the Senate leadership told the Associated Press that the court has “seized the constitutional and sovereign right to draw districts from lawmakers to an unelected California college professor with clear conflicts of interest. We are disturbed the court has apparently planned all along to achieve its preferred political outcome and are reviewing our legal options.”
This from a General Assembly that has not only been given two chances to draw constitutional districts and failed each time but also has been allowed to hold an election using the illegal districts.
Legislators in the House and Senate were elected in 2016 under maps that judges appointed by Republicans and judges appointed by Democrats have agreed were unconstitutional. Now legislative leaders are desperately trying to delay the case against them long enough to force the 2018 elections to be held with illegal districts too.
That seems highly unlikely. The three-judge panel said in this week’s ruling appointing the outside expert that “the state is not entitled to multiple opportunities to remedy its unconstitutional districts.”
In other words, legislative leaders have had their chances but they could not resist drawing another set of illegal districts. They apparently don’t trust the voters to re-elect them otherwise.
And raising the question of “sovereignty” at this point is an interesting response. North Carolina at last check was still part of the United States and therefore subject to the decisions and orders of the federal courts and every level of the court system has weighed in on this case and found that the legislative districts violated the U.S. Constitution, which at this point also governs North Carolina.
The federal courts have long been involved in redistricting disputes and are now considering two cases questioning the constitutionality of extreme partisan gerrymandering, with one of them now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
As to outside experts drawing the new districts, it’s not unusual for the courts to rely on one and the Republicans themselves started that trend this time by using an out of state GOP hired gun to draw the original and illegal districts that the courts have repeatedly struck down.
House Redistricting Chair David Lewis famously said of the gerrymandered congressional districts that were also struck down that the only reason he drew 10 Republican districts of the 13 in North Carolina is that he could not figure out how to draw 11 that favored Republicans.
The same is true of the General Assembly districts that the courts have rejected. They were drawn using race to guarantee Republican supermajorities. The only reason there are not more Republican districts is that they couldn’t figure out how to draw them either.
It does all make you wonder why legislative leaders are so panicked. They tell us every day that their policies that have cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations, underfunded our schools, and rolled back important environmental protections are popular with the people in North Carolina.
There is a simple way to find out if that is true. Stop fighting to maintain districts that make fair elections impossible. Let’s have a more honest election — without the courts making us do it — and see what happens.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.