Redistricting abuses… again

by Jordan Green

A legal challenge to the redistricting plan approved by the Republican-dominated General Assembly made its first halting crawl through the courts last week, and a three-judge panel has set a date for a hearing next month.

The NC NAACP, one of the plaintiffs in a consolidated lawsuit against the state, argues that the new maps “are a scheme to increase the political power of the ultra-conservative leadership in the General Assembly at the expense of the power of the African-American vote.” Yet the US Justice Department, which must approve any changes to electoral maps in North Carolina, has precleared the plans.

There is no doubt that the adopted plans are marred by tortured boundary lines drawn for nakedly partisan ends. And while this chicanery sets a new low for redistricting and brings discredit to the Republican majority, such practices have been woven into the political fabric of this country ever since Elbridge Gerry put pen to paper in the state of Massachusetts in 1812.

There’s a lot at stake here, and it’s complicated. For one, there’s a narrow legal question on whether the plans violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection by increasing black representation at the expense of broader influence. Specifically, critics charge that the plans increase the number of districts with black majorities while blanching the adjacent districts so that while the number of black lawmakers is increased they are likely to be outvoted by white counterparts who have fewer black constituents to hold them accountable and moderate their positions.

And even if the courts uphold the plans as a matter of legal technicality, voters have to question whether the Republicans have cynically exploited race to consolidate their power while opening old wounds of division.

Unfortunately, there’s even more at stake than racial equality. With North Carolina viewed as one of three or four states key to the outcome of next year’s presidential election and Republicans rallying to oust a weak Democratic incumbent in the governor’s race, a deluge of cash and volunteers will be pouring into the state. Voters will be confronted with the most crowded slate since 2008, with candidates for Congress, council of state, both houses of the General Assembly, county commission and school board on the ballot.

Like it or not, the legal challenges create uncertainty about whether the campaign schedule will be pushed back and which plan will be used, holding up efforts to educate voters on district lines and candidate slates.

The viewpoint that race should no longer factor in the drawing of electoral lines in our corner of the state has been espoused in the past by this newspaper’s editorial page and by NC Rep. Marcus Brandon, a maverick black Democrat. I’m not quite there yet. One of the important purposes of the Voting Rights Act is to ensure that non-white voters have the opportunity to elect candidates of choice. There’s ample evidence that white voters are still reluctant to some degree to cross the color line when selecting candidates in the voting booth. And there’s no doubt that on many issues, elected officials’ voting records demonstrate racial patterns.

The Republicans have cynically tweaked the principles of the Voting Rights Act to their own partisan advantage.

For example, they packed additional black voters into Senate District 28, increasing the black voting age population from 47.2 percent to 57.1 percent. If they were worried that the black voters of District 28 didn’t have sufficient clout to elect a candidate of choice, their concerns were misplaced. Katie Dorsett, who is black, ran unopposed in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 general elections. In 2010, another black candidate, Gladys Robinson, handily defeated a white opponent, Trudy Wade, in the general election, despite having to contend with a potential spoiler. The third candidate, Bruce Davis, who is also black, commanded 13.5 percent of the vote.

The spillover effect is that black voters are bled out of neighboring District 27, effectively flipping it from the Democratic column. The new District 27 is a disfigured amoeba that travels from one end of the county to the other, cherry-picking Republican-leaning voters. Equally egregious, if not relevant to the question of racial equality, is the fact that the new plan draws Democratic Sen. Don Vaughan out of his former district and throws him into a Republican-leaning district, with the result that the next NC Senate could conceivably include no representative from Greensboro.

Incidentally, if Republicans want to draw districts that insulate their candidates from the will of black voters in Guilford County, their gesture of inhospitality is likely to haunt them. As a share of the overall electorate, the percentage of registered black voters grew from 27.5 percent to 31.3 percent from 2003 to 2011. Meanwhile, Democrats have held steady with about 50 percent of the electorate, while the percentage of registered Republicans has declined from 33.9 percent to 29.0 percent.

The trouble for critics of the Republican redistricting plans is that charges of using race for partisan gain are easy to throw back, for a simple reason: Black voters are more aligned with the active-government agenda of the Democratic Party while white voters are more likely to support the tax-cutting and anti-regulation platform espoused by the Republicans.

In some sense, taking a stand for or against the plans plays into the partisan power games of one party or the other.

As long as redistricting is left up to elected officials, the party in power is always going to abuse the process to consolidate its gains. Partisan redistricting allows elected officials to choose their voters rather than the other way around, depriving we the people of a say in our government.

To those who are fighting to stop these grotesqueries passing for redistricting plans: Good luck because you’re going to need it. But when you lose, please marshal the same passion for an independent redistricting commission so that we don’t have to repeat this farcical tragedy in 10 years.