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Does your vote count in North Carolina?

By: Cheryl Thurston

NC-Color-MapMembers of the United States House of Representatives, the North Carolina Senate and the North Carolina House of Representatives are elected by district. The North Carolina General Assembly is required to redraw these districts following each census, because of changes in the population and the need to maintain equal representation. The most recent census was carried out in 2010, so districts were redrawn in 2011.

Since this latest redrawing of the districts, the courts have been steadily viewing and reviewing the lines that were drawn, and the lawsuits that have come about because of the gerrymandering of districts. One case in particular, was appealed to the US Supreme Court after the Supreme Court of North Carolina upheld it. In April 2015, The US Supreme Court threw out the ruling that the state court had upheld and ordered the state Supreme Court to reconsider the issue of whether the NC General Assembly had relied too heavily on race when redrawing the districts after the 2010 census.

The term gerrymander was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette on 26 March 1812. The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry.  In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. Gerrymander is a mash-up of the governor’s last name and the word salamander.

In addition to its use achieving desired electoral results for a particular party, gerrymandering may be used to help or hinder a particular demographic, such as a political, ethnic, racial, religious, or class group. Couple that with voter restrictions, and it’s hard to know if your vote counts at all. In just the last five years, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced by lawmakers in 49 states, with half the states enacting measures making it harder to vote.

“In North Carolina, race was the overriding factor in the drawing of the new voting districts. Legislative leaders were intent on creating several new “majority minority” districts throughout the state, telling the mapmakers to “draw a ‘50 percent plus one’ [black voting population] district wherever there was a sufficiently compact black population” – without regard to whether those districts were needed to further minority political participation” Sharon McCloskey said, in her recent article published on NC Policy Watch. “According to plan challengers, the redistricting team did that by pulling black voters out of their prior districts and concentrating them in new ones, a redistricting concept known as “packing” or “bleaching” when groups are moved based on race; strengthening the white and arguably Republican vote elsewhere.”

Margaret Dickson, a former state representative, was one of the challengers in a lawsuit contending that maps drawn by the Republican-led legislature in North Carolina were designed to weaken the black vote in violation of the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions.

Within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, interpretations of its larger meaning and impact reflected a gulf between Democrats and Republicans in the state.

Republicans described the order as a procedural step on a path that’s likely to result in similar support from either the N.C. Supreme Court or a three-judge Superior Court panel that upheld the maps in previous rulings.

Democrats and voters who challenged the maps argued that the U.S. justices would not send the case back without expecting a full and different review of the legal arguments, and they pushed for quick resolution of an issue that has been contested through two election cycles already.

“North Carolinians,” Dickson said, “deserve to have this resolved so that they can benefit from fair and legal maps for the 2016 elections.”

“We have always known that the current maps were unconstitutional and are gratified that the Supreme Court of the United States has now set in motion a way forward for final disposition of this long-running and wrongly-decided case,” she said in a statement.

The chairmen of the legislative redistricting committees that led the map-drawing – Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, and Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County – said they believe the N.C. Supreme Court will come to the same conclusion it did in December, when it upheld the unanimous ruling of the three-judge panel that heard the case in N.C. Superior Court. citation

Lawyers challenging the NC map said they have filed a motion asking the North Carolina Supreme Court to expedite its review. “Plaintiffs originally filed this case in 2011. They are entitled to a final determination that their rights have been violated and a prompt redrawing of non-discriminatory, geographically compact districts in time for the 2016 elections,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a Durham, N.C., group representing the challengers. (Following the 2010 census, the North Carolina Legislature redrew congressional and legislative lines to concentrate African-Americans in a handful of districts, under the theory the Voting Rights Act favored the creation of majority black districts. The prior state map had no majority black congressional or state Senate districts; the 2011 map had two of the former and nine of the latter. In the state House, majority-black seats increased to 23 from 10.)

The N.C. Supreme Court issued notice, in May 2015, that it would hear arguments in August on challenges to the 2011 redistricting maps that outline legislative and congressional districts across North Carolina.

The notice came nearly three weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to North Carolina’s highest court with instructions to reconsider a December decision that upheld the maps. citation

Senator Leahy said, “If anybody thinks there’s not racial discrimination in voting today, they’re not really paying attention.” The 2016 presidential election will be the first one in 50 years where voters will not have the full protections of the VRA.

Gerrymandering is used most often in favor of ruling incumbents or the specific political party drawing the map, and it has been an issue with voters for over 100 years. The primary goal of gerrymandering is to maximize the effect of supporters’ votes and to minimize the effect of opponents’ votes. This is often accomplished through tactics such as “Packing” which concentrates as many voters of one type into a single electoral district to reduce their influence in other districts. It’s used for partisan advantage when the party controlling the districting process has a state-wide minority.

Gerrymandering also has significant effects on the representation received by voters in gerrymandered districts, because it is designed to increase the number of wasted votes among the electorate, making the relative representation of particular groups drastically different from their actual share of the voting population.

So… What’s a voter to do? The most common electoral reform proposal targeted at gerrymandering is to change the redistricting process. Under these proposals, an independent and presumably objective commission is created specifically for redistricting, rather than having the legislature do it. To ensure neutrality, members of a redistricting agency may be appointed from apolitical sources such as retired judges or longstanding members of the civil service. In 2005, the state of Ohio had a ballot measure to create an independent commission whose first priority was competitive districts, a sort of reverse gerrymander.

When a single political party controls both legislative houses of a state during redistricting, both Democrats and Republicans have displayed a tendancy for keeping the process in secrecy. In May 2010, for example, the Republican National Committee held a redistricting training session in Ohio where the theme was “Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe”. (read more about that on www.wikipedia.com)

The need for increased transparency in redistricting processes is clear; a 2012 investigation by The Center for Public Integrity reviewed every state’s redistricting processes for both transparency and potential for public input, and ultimately assigned 24 states grades of either D or F. In response to these types of problems, redistricting transparency legislation has been introduced to the US Congress a number of times in recent years, including the Redistricting Transparency Acts of 2010, 2011, and 2013. Such policy proposals aim to increase the transparency of the redistricting systems used.

Another way to avoid gerrymandering is to stop redistricting altogether and use existing political boundaries such as state and county lines. While this prevents future gerrymandering, any existing advantage may become deeply ingrained. The United States Senate, for instance, has more competitive elections than the House of Representatives due to the use of existing state borders rather than gerrymandered districts. Senators are elected by their entire state, while Representatives are elected in legislatively drawn districts.

North Carolina has 13 congressional districts, the boundaries of which, have changed several times since the last census. See the photos below for the changes over time. The first photo shows the boundaries in 2002, the second shows the boundaries from 2003 – 2013, and the third shows the boundaries since 2013:

2002
2002

 

2003-2013
2003-2013
Since 2013
Since 2013

Are you concerned about your 2016 vote? Want to get involved but don’t know where to start? Use the Internet to educate yourself on the issues and discover petitions and other campaigns aimed at redistricting in North Carolina. Contact your representatives, both state and federal, and express your concerns. Get involved in changing the political processes that govern your life. We are living in the year 2015, dear readers. Redistricting, gerrymandering, and segregating shouldn’t be tolerated any more. Every vote should hold weight. Are you concerned? So am I? Make your vote count.
Thom TillisRichard BurrDavid RouzerWilliam Brisson

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