Politics

Scalia’s Death Throws North Carolina’s Upcoming Election Into Confusion

CREDIT: AP Photo/Chuck Burton

A man holds a protest sign at a rally in Winston-Salem, N.C., Monday, July 13, 2015 after the beginning of a federal voting rights trial challenging a 2013 state law.

North Carolina’s primary is less than a month away, but the key swing state may be forced to postpone. A federal court ruling last week declared the state’s voting maps unconstitutional thanks to racial gerrymandering, and ordered them to be redrawn. Unless the Supreme Court intervenes, state lawmakers will have to scramble to create new maps that don’t pack African American voters into small, oddly shaped districts that make the surrounding districts whiter and easier for Republicans to win.

North Carolina's 12th Congressional District

North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District

Yet this week, as North Carolina lawmakers prepared to create these revised maps, they spoke openly about making sure the state is still gerrymandered along political lines, if not racial ones.

“Our intent is to use the political data we have to our partisan advantage,” Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) told the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting on Tuesday. “I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander which is not against the law.”

He’s right. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in 2004, states are free to use gerrymandering to entrench the political power of the majority party.

The North Carolina redistricting committee voted Tuesday to use data of how residents voted in previous elections to draw new maps that ensure Republicans keep a 10 to 3 super-majority among the representatives they send to the U.S. Congress, despite the fact that the state is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Since the current map was ruled unconstitutional because it was too heavily focused on maintaining a “racial quota” in certain districts, the committee also voted this week to not use any racial data at all during the revisions.

Some representatives, including Rep. Cecil Brockman (D-Guilford), were furious.

“They have no shame about it,” he told ThinkProgress. “It’s just not patriotic that these people feel they need to run in districts that give them that much of a partisan advantage. How are we supposed to encourage people to run for office or even to vote in those districts if they think the results are already predetermined? They’ve drawn a super-majority for themselves and that’s not a democracy.”

Brockman and other representatives will likely get to see the revised maps on Wednesday, and will vote on them on Thursday or Friday. After seeing the multi-year battle over these maps, which were drawn in 2011, he told ThinkProgress the state must find a new way to make sure its citizens are fairly represented.

“I am calling for the federal judges to take away North Carolina’s power to draw our own maps,” he said. “We’ve proven we can’t be trusted to do it.”

Lawmakers and North Carolina voters are also butting heads on whether to postpone the state’s March 15 primary election. The question presents somewhat of a lose-lose situation for voters. If the maps are changed and the election delayed, thousands of people who have already submitted absentee ballots could be disenfranchised. There could also be a great deal of voter confusion from such last-minute changes, especially if they are poorly publicized. State Republicans have said the election should go forward with the current maps, saying that they were used in the 2012 and 2014 elections and that one more wouldn’t hurt.

The state’s NAACP branch vehemently disagreed, saying the election should be pushed back to May to give time for an impartial court, not the Republicans in the statehouse, to redraw the maps.

Brockman says he too would be open to such a plan, though he would have to consult his colleagues and constituents first.

Meanwhile, Lewis and other North Carolina Republicans said this week that they are still holding out hope that the Supreme Court will step in and uphold the current, racially gerrymandered maps. But the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia makes that far less likely. If the court splits 4 to 4 on the question, the lower court’s ruling that the maps are unconstitutionally gerrymandered will stand.

North Carolina voters are also waiting to hear the fate of the state’s other voting laws, which the NAACP and other civil rights groups challenged in federal court last summer and this January. Lawyers representing African American voters in the state argued that the voter ID law the state passed in 2013 was — like the gerrymandered maps — an intentional move by Republicans to suppress voters of color and maintain their majority.