Pendulums, clocks and gerrymandering
Published December 16, 2021
By Tom Campbell
North Carolina, like the nation, has a political history which can be likened to a huge pendulum. For much of our history the pendulum remained more or less in the center, sometimes center left and sometimes center right. But there have also been periods when the arc swung far to the liberal left, most recently in the 1960s. Newton’s 3rd law dictates that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; that pendulum has now unquestionably swung far to the conservative right. The question many are asking is when it will return to a more centrist position? And when will this movement be noticeable?
The discussion was couched in another metaphor by newsman Brian Williams. In a recent interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, he asked her to suppose that life is a clockface and that democracy runs out at midnight. Williams asked where Goodwin thought the clock was now? “We are as close to midnight as anything I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Goodwin responded. “Democracy is a system that depends on citizens choosing their own governors. The fight for the right to vote has to be the central fight in this country.”
In North Carolina, instead of fighting for the right to vote, legislative leaders appear to be fighting to deny some that basic right. If you are white, male and a Republican you likely disagree with that assessment, but events of recent months scream to the contrary.
Our legislature recently passed “The Election Day Integrity Act,” a bill restricting absentee votes from being counted if they aren’t received by election day. With one notable exception, there is no evidence of any significant problems with current absentee ballot law, which allows votes to count if received within three days after the election. That exception came in 2018, in the election for the 9th Congressional District, where evidence of vote harvesting and fraud were uncovered. The election was overturned and people went to jail. The system worked. Wisely, Governor Cooper vetoed the just-passed law that sought a solution for which there was no problem.
Following the much delayed and arguably less-than-accurate 2020 census our state, like all others, was required to redraw congressional and legislative districts to conform with population counts. One would have hoped that after the many lawsuits and forced redrawing of districts that resulted from the 2011 redistricting our legislature would have drawn maps which accurately reflected their population and demographics and were competitive. Instead, our Republican-controlled legislature drew maps blatantly rigged in their party’s favor.
Those maps recently drawn would have virtually guaranteed that 11 of our 14 congressional districts would elect Republicans and no more than one of them would be a person of color. One analysis declared only 1 in 5 districts would be competitive. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project proclaimed that North Carolina was one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation and a group of four former state governors, three Republicans and one Democrat (our own Mike Easley), joined a lawsuit to get the maps thrown out.
No sooner had the maps been revealed than lawsuits were initiated to halt them from being used in 2022 and 2024. A three-judge Appeals Court panel agreed to halt them, but the entire Court of Appeals, dominated by Republicans, overturned the verdict. Days later, our Supreme Court not only postponed next year’s March 8th primaries but moved those elections until May 17th. Many applauded the justices, but Republicans claimed the Supreme Court consists of more Democrats than Republicans and accused their action of being partisan. Partisanship of the courts is another topic for a later column, but it’s worth asking if justice is really blind?
Is Doris Kearns Goodwin correct about democracy being under the greatest threat since the Civil War? Is there any group of people willing to put aside their own political interests (or those of their party) to draw maps where elections can be competitive regardless of party? Is this a fight worth fighting? If so, what role are you willing to play in this battle?
What must happen to get the pendulum swinging back to the middle?