NC Congressional districts struck down

Just one month before candidates start signing up to run for the 2018 elections, a three judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down North Carolina’s congressional districts as partisan gerrymanders that violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Although N.C. General Assembly has been directed by the Jan. 9 ruling to redraw the districts by Jan. 24, a promised appeal by the GOP makes that date unlikely, but it’s clear that change — and probably some degree of chaos — is coming to the only democracy in the world in which elected officials pick their voters, and not vice versa.

“Any change we see is going to benefit the Democrats,” said Western Carolina University Political Science professor Dr. Chris Cooper. “But I think it remains to be seen how much.”

In the short term, Cooper said, the lines delineating the 10th and 11th congressional districts would likely change.

“The 10th is unlikely to become Democratic leaning,” said Cooper of Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry’s Hendersonville-area district. “The 11th [home to Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers] is much more of a question mark, I think. It was the most competitive district in the state, but then it became the most Republican district in the state.”

North Carolina Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse denounced the ruling as political in nature and as penned by an activist judge, but Haywood County Democratic Party Chair Myrna Campbell used to work in the office of former Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler, Meadows’ predecessor, and can verify firsthand Cooper’s assertion.

“I think a strong case can be made that the redrawing of the congressional map in 2011 to place Asheville into the 10th district and adding three predominately Republican counties to the 11th constituted partisan gerrymandering because it significantly diminished the number of Democrat voters in the 11th,” Campbell said. “Prior to the redistricting, the 11th was classified as a competitive district. Now, it’s statistically impossible for a Democrat to win with just Democrat votes.”

But for 150 years Democrats had a boot on the neck of state Republicans, wielding legislative power and drawing gerrymandered districts of their own — even before Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt took office in 1977, a Democrat-controlled General Assembly gave him the power to fire state workers at will. His assistant Joe Pell is quoted in Wayne Grimsley’s biography as unapologetically saying at the time, “The game of politics, as far as I know, is still played on the basis of ‘to the victor goes the spoils.’”

With the GOP’s recent takeover of state government — as well as a current supermajority in the house — can they really be blamed for playing the game by the rules that currently exist?

“We all expected this in a lot of ways,” Cooper said. “Republicans had a lot of policy proposals they weren’t able to pass for over a century. The Republicans didn’t hide the ball. They were pretty clear on what they stood for, and they got elected fair and square, so I don’t think it’s a big surprise. This will tick off some people probably, but in some ways it’s a positive sign for democracy — they said what they wanted to do, they got into office, and they’ve done it.”

In the long run, Cooper thinks that the ruling will not only change the lines, but also the way the lines are drawn.

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“Up until this point, legislators in North Carolina and elsewhere have been able to draw lines to benefit their party and they’ve been open about it,” he said of current districts, which saw 56 percent of voters choose Republican congressional candidates in 2016, which somehow resulted in 10 of 13 seats going for the GOP. “They say, ‘It was only 10-3 because we couldn’t get 11-2.’”

While the 11th is currently seen as a safe district for Meadows, placing Asheville back into the 11th and removing one or more of the three Republican counties added in 2011 “could dramatically change the political landscape” according to Campbell.

Meadows, for his part, doesn’t seem too worried about his district changing. The three-term congressman won his last two elections by more than 25 percentage points each, and won his first term in 2012 by almost 15 points, an average margin of victory of just under 23 percent overall.

“We enjoy a great working relationship with the N.C. legislature, and we have total confidence that they will act in the best interest of the people of North Carolina,” said Ben Williamson, Meadows’ press secretary.

Even if Asheville — or parts thereof — are added to Meadows’ district, it may not be enough to make the district competitive.

It may be a different story on the state level, however; the same arguments that were made about congressional districts in North Carolina could also be made about the legislative districts, resulting in a complete redo of those districts as well.

“If the Democrats make the same argument about the state legislature — that it is a partisan gerrymander — and if that would hold, then I think we would redraw those. So it wouldn’t be immediate but I think the second order effects of it could trickle down to the General Assembly.”

That becomes important because the decennial census is rapidly approaching in 2020. The results of that census will be used to draw all new districts for the 2022 elections, both congressional and legislative.

It’s likely that North Carolina will gain an additional congressional seat at the expense of some northern state, and state legislators will be the ones doing the drawing, as well as drawing their own districts.

“If this ruling holds, then I think we would see that the same principles apply to the legislature, where I think the Republican supermajority would be up for grabs pretty quickly,” Cooper said.

Still, just about everything surrounding the next two election cycles in North Carolina is up in the air until more appeals are settled.

“They’ve held three elections with unconstitutionally drawn maps,” Campbell said, “and they’re determined to have at least one more.”

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