A Momentous Gerrymandering Decision, for Republicans and Democrats
Republican Vinroot, Democrat Jackson working to solve redistricting issue that U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday
State Senator Jeff Jackson speaks with a voter outside a polling place in Charlotte on Election Day.
They’re two Charlotteans, both former or current public officials. One is 76 and Republican. The other is a Democrat less than half his age. Over the past few years, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot and N.C. Senator Jeff Jackson, separately and for somewhat different reasons, have argued the essential case against gerrymandering, the drawing of electoral district lines by people in power to maintain that power. Both believe it hurts democracy. Both believe the lines should be drawn by an independent group of people who wouldn’t benefit from the drawing.
True to form, they had different reactions Monday to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a lower court was correct in determining that North Carolina’s legislative district lines are unconstitutionally gerrymandered by race.
“This is the one we’ve been expecting and hoping for for 18 months,” said Jackson.
“My immediate reaction is that this is not as significant as what may come,” said Vinroot.
But they did agree on the basic facts on the ground: Once again, the highest court in the land has determined that in 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly drew district lines specifically to weaken the influence black voters. (Weirdly, that finding was mentioned in a mere footnote in the actual ruling, which devoted three pages to punting the issue of the remedy—including new legislative elections this fall—back to the federal District Court.)
The legislature can redraw the lines to make legislative districts more racially equitable without threatening the Republican supermajority that’s dominated it since 2013. But the Supreme Court “is finally acknowledging,” Jackson said, “how bad the gerrymandering situation is in North Carolina.”
Vinroot has joined forces with another Charlotte Republican, former Governor Jim Martin, to lobby the General Assembly to work toward establishment of a nonpartisan redistricting commission that would take the power to gerrymander out of legislators’ hands. Vinroot’s hesitancy Monday to rejoice over the Supreme Court ruling is born of his focus on what he sees as an even more important case: a challenge to the constitutionality of new Congressional district lines the legislature adopted last year. (All these various redistrictings and legal challenges to them get incredibly confusing, I know.)
The key difference with this suit is that it asks a federal court to declare the lines unconstitutional as a political gerrymander, not a racial one. In other words, rule that the redrawing of district lines to secure political power is unconstitutional regardless of whether it discriminates against minorities. The case is pending in U.S. District Court; if the Supreme Court eventually rules in the plaintiffs’ favor, it could establish a precedent that would all but end the practice of gerrymandering in the United States. “That’s the mother lode,” Jackson said.
“I frankly will be very surprised if the Supreme Court does that,” Vinroot said. “These are complex questions, and I don’t think anyone can predict what’s going to happen with any of these cases.”
And yet Jackson says he can see signs that the season is turning. On Saturday, he attended a town hall meeting at Gethsemane Baptist Church of Lake Norman in Davidson, a church not even in his senatorial district. He was the only elected official there. About 30 seconds in, before he could even broach the subject, a woman raised her hand and asked him to talk about gerrymandering. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess we’re taking questions now,’” Jackson said, “which was a perfect segue to what I wanted to talk about for the next 15 minutes anyway.”
A few years ago, few voters thought about gerrymandering as an important issue, Jackson says. Now they do, and some are pressuring their representatives in the legislature to put a stop to it. “And that’s important, because gerrymandering is fundamentally indefensible. So when constituents press them on it, they basically have to agree,” he said. “But they’re counting on people not knowing about it.”