Opinion: The Significance of the Redistricting Ruling
Democrats might be able to break the GOP's grip on state government
I wrote this a little more than two years ago, in a piece for the magazine about how and why the Republican Party took over North Carolina state government to a degree unseen in more than a century:
The [Democratic] party’s aim is to gain ground in the General Assembly in the next three election cycles, with the ultimate goal of retaking the legislature by 2020 and undoing the post-2010 redistricting. Without that, North Carolina likely faces two decades of GOP dominance in state politics.
The real importance of a three-judge U.S. District Court panel’s ruling Thursday—that legislators unconstitutionally gerrymandered the state’s legislative districts based on race—is its potential to undo that scenario. It comes too late to affect the 2016 elections (and isn’t that a kick in the teeth, knowing that North Carolinians will have to live for at least two years with a legislature elected under unconstitutional district lines?), but the long-term consequences are what really matter.
If the ruling holds, it means, simply, that Democrats have a fighting chance to break the stranglehold the GOP has had on the legislature since 2010, and especially 2012. (I doubt I need to review all the contours of the giant edifice of crap the Republican-supermajority General Assembly has erected in Raleigh.) With the current district lines in place, even the best-organized, best-funded effort by North Carolina Democrats would have a hard time just whittling the supermajority down to a simple majority. In 2014, with close to two years of highly publicized outrage behind it, Democrats managed to gain only four seats in the House, and they lost a seat in the Senate.
That is, of course, the point of gerrymandering, to lock in established power for one party; if the Republicans held control of the legislature after the 2020 elections, they could redraw the map again with new Census figures and lock the door again for, probably, another decade. The court ruling throws all that into doubt.
You can find some entertaining nuggets in the 167-page document. Here’s my favorite, only partly because it focuses on Mecklenburg County (see map above):
First, the impact of Senate Districts 38 and 40 on the compactness of the remaining districts in Mecklenburg County is notable. Because the Chairs drew Senate Districts 38 and 40 first, and determined that they had to be majority-black districts, the other Mecklenburg County districts had to be drawn around them. As a result, majority-white Senate District 41 (which is not challenged in this case) had to contain the northernmost portion of Mecklenburg County, then follow a long, thin strip of land along the entire eastern border of Mecklenburg County to connect it to the southeastern corner of the county. This land bridge is made primarily of precincts that are split between Senate District 41 and Senate Districts 38 and 40. In fact, Senate District 41 is nearly non-contiguous: at one point the northern portion of the narrow land bridge is connected to the southern portion solely by a freeway interchange, where no individuals live.
Now, that’s some gerrymandering with bells on: a district that not only contains a “land bridge” but a literal bridge within the bridge. It’s fun to imagine demographers trying to get an accurate count of ethnicities whipping by at 70 mph.
But this is overall a big flippin’ deal, as the vice president might say with more salt. And there’s an even bigger message here to anyone who’s watched North Carolina state government in horror over the past three-plus years. Coupled with the court’s similar ruling this year on Congressional district lines, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling two weeks ago on voter ID, it seems the federal courts are pounding the cornerstones of this era of legislative misrule into bits.