The courts spoke. Now we must.
Published March 10, 2022
By Tom Campbell
It should have come as no surprise that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the maps approved by North Carolina’s high court. They generally uphold redistricting decisions from state courts. After two gerrymandered maps from the legislature, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled their last submissions “are unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt under the free elections clause, the equal protection clause, the free speech clause, and the freedom of assembly clause of the North Carolina Constitution.”
A bipartisan group of retired judges and academic experts was tasked to draw new congressional districts, which they submitted and were approved by our high court. The state GOP, urged by legislative leadership, asked the US Supreme Court to stay the districts from being used, arguing that the legislature, and only the legislature, had the right to draw district maps. Further, once drawn the courts had no authority to change the maps.
We have a long and sad history with redistricting, both from Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps you remember the 2016 comments of Representative David Lewis, the former Harnett County Republican chair of the House redistricting committee. After a federal court had ruled the 2011 congressional maps were unconstitutional because of racial gerrymandering, Lewis said, “…the districts were drawn to give Republicans 10 seats and Democrats three seats because they couldn’t figure out a way to draw an 11-2 map.” Some thought he was just being facetious, but it is increasingly clear neither he nor Republican leadership was joking.
Are we to believe that the legislature has carte blanche to draw maps in almost any manner they like? Does fairness matter? Should race, sex or recent party voting patterns be of any import? And if our lawmakers figure out how to gerrymander all 14 congressional districts to Republican advantage is there no one to whom we can appeal?
In 2019, all members of the U.S. Supreme Court – including Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh – seemed to agree that state courts have some role.
Ours is a so-called “purple” state. The legislature is controlled by Republicans. Our Executive branch by a Democrat, our Court of Appeals has a Republican plurality and our Supreme Court a Democratic plurality. In the 2020 election we gave 50 percent of the presidential vote to Trump and 49 percent to Biden. Shouldn’t our legislative and congressional districts reflect these patterns?
Here are my takeaways: First, we can now hold the May 17th primaries using the maps approved by our Supreme Court. Candidates know the districts in which they will run. Next, it is unreasonable to trust legislators, interested in maintaining their power, to apply fairness in less than a partisan way. It’s as impossible as teaching the proverbial pig to fly.
Recent court redistricting lawsuits center around the two political parties, but North Carolina is no longer just a two-party state. Unaffiliated voters now outnumber Republicans, and it won’t be long until they do the same with Democrats. We make it highly difficult, if not impossible, for an unaffiliated candidate to even get on the ballot, much less win an election. The entire proposition of having to attain a large number of signatures for an unaffiliated or third-party candidate to get on the ballot desperately needs changing. The one thing the two political parties can agree on is blocking other any other parties (especially unaffiliated voters) from ballot access.
Here’s an idea: Let’s remove all party designations on primary and general election ballots. To be sure this will likely mean more people file to run. It won’t shorten an already too-long ballot, but maybe we might have more choices and better candidates offering to serve in public offices. The top two vote getters would advance to the general election. This would also eliminate costly and lengthy runoff elections. While making changes, we must regulate “dark money” independent expenditure groups, so candidates/parties/special interests are no longer able to buy elections.
If these ideas sound like a return to simpler times, a time when the candidate with the best message won, we are clearly communicating.
Finally, if there was ever a time that demonstrated how important judicial elections are, it is now. I say again the most important elections in 2022 will be our appellate courts.