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North Carolina state Democrats are ‘frozen out’ due to racial gerrymander

“It’s a sad state of affairs.”

The North Carolina state legislature building is seen in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, May 9, 2016. (CREDIT: Al Drago/CQ Roll Call/GETTY IMAGES)
The North Carolina state legislature building is seen in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, May 9, 2016. (CREDIT: Al Drago/CQ Roll Call/GETTY IMAGES)

Democratic state lawmakers in North Carolina say they are shut out of key legislative conversations, while the issue of the state’s gerrymandered legislative districts, as well as its congressional districts, are currently tied up in court. 

The Supreme Court last week temporarily blocked a lower federal court’s ruling that ordered North Carolina legislators to redraw the state’s partisan gerrymandered congressional map before the 2018 elections. It is now unclear whether the gerrymander issue will be resolved in time for the midterms, potentially forcing voters to cast their ballots in districts unfairly benefiting Republican candidates.

In the original ruling, a panel of three federal judges in North Carolina decided that the state’s map, which was originally drawn in 2011, violated the First Amendment, as well as 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Election Clause. According to the judges, the legislator who had drawn the map — Republican state Rep. David Lewis — had said, “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

Lewis took to Twitter after the Supreme Court ruling to celebrate the news, calling the lower court’s decision an “overreach.”

North Carolina is no stranger to gerrymandering controversy — the problem has occurred at the state district level as well. In June 2017, the Supreme Court agreed with an earlier federal district court decision which ruled that 28 state legislative districts were drawn as a result of an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, packing voters of color, who typically vote Democrat, into a smaller number of districts and weakening the impact of their votes. New maps were redrawn and the lower court approved them this month, but the issue has yet to be resolved. This week, Republican lawmakers filed an emergency stay of the district court’s decision pending review by the Supreme Court. The lower court has not yet ruled on that request.

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When districts are gerrymandered, the outcome barely resembles democracy. In the 2012 presidential election, for instance, Republican candidate Mitt Romney won only 50.6 percent of the popular vote in North Carolina, but Republicans ended up winning 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats — a whopping 77 percent. Several other states have also recently come under legal scrutiny for gerrymandering — and the developments could shed light on the outcome of the North Carolina cases.

Crossing the Red Sea

The negative effects of gerrymandering on voters’ rights are well-known and well-researched. In North Carolina, gerrymandering has also hampered the ability of Democratic state lawmakers to legislate over the the past few years. As a result of Republican dominance in the state House (75 of the state’s 120 legislators are Republican), some Democrats are housed in tiny offices, shut out of committees, and struggle to get legislation through in Raleigh.

“It is like trying to cross the Red Sea before it parted,” said state Rep. Bobbie Richardson (D-Franklin/Nash). “It’s difficult to even get [bills] to be heard in committee meetings. Most of the time they don’t even get [put on the] agenda.”

One workaround in swiftly crossing the sea, Richardson said, is allowing Republicans to take credit for Democratic legislation.

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“It appears to me that if I got a great legislative idea, if I forfeit the primary sponsorship over to Republicans, then the bill will move,” she said. “I’m not that concerned about who gets credit, but it does kind of rub me the wrong way.” 

Richardson said her district, State House District 7, is currently advantageous for her because it is made up of mostly Democratic voters, but because it stretches haphazardly across two counties in the state, she often runs into problems reaching out to her constituents and addressing the variety of their concerns.

credit: north carolina general assembly website
credit: north carolina general assembly website

“Of course, I can get reelected, but the challenge is having a diverse group of communities that may have different needs and interests,” she said. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to reach the mass. I try to send out emails. I try to have town hall meetings, but many of the people in those outlying areas don’t get the emails … because of the lack of broadband.”

Rep. Deb Butler (D-Brunswick/New Hanover) said she’s stuck in a hole in the state House.

“No, it’s not because I’m lesbian,” said Butler, who is one of two LGBTQ members in the state legislature. “The only reason I’m in this closet office and shut out of committees is because I’m a Democrat.”

When Butler looks at the North Carolina map that shows the heavily gerrymandered state, she sees a few blue dots spattered on a sea of red, as if Picasso had aimlessly taken a brush to it.

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“Illegal gerrymandering has made it so that the legislators are choosing their voters instead of the other way around,” said Butler. “They’ve created circumstances where the districts are preordained.”

“It has an incredibly polarizing effect,” she added, “because the people that are going to vote in the primary are typically on an extreme end of the spectrum. You’re a primary voter choosing the legislators, so when that happens never the twain shall meet when they get to Raleigh.”

Butler spoke of Republican tactics to shut her out of environmental committee meetings last year regarding the contamination of North Carolina’s Cape Fear River by chemicals like GenX.

“Just the unabashed partisanship of it all — there’s no other reason to exclude me from it except for the fact that I’m a Democrat. That is the only reason,” Butler told StarNews at the time.

“It’s a sad state of affairs, because even when you are willing to participate on committees, you are frozen out,” Butler told ThinkProgress. “If you look at the coastal swash, you’ll see that there is a sea of red and only one blue anchor. I’m the blue anchor — the only coastal representative to serve on committees.”

Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Durham/Orange) holds the office next to Butler and claims he was moved to a smaller office as punishment for successfully recruiting Democrats.

“That was primarily done because I am the recruitment chair for House Democrats and I did a good enough job in recruiting candidates that we beat some of the Republicans last year, so this was retribution,” said Meyer. 

The racial gerrymander has made it “very, very difficult to solve problems that require compromise,” he said.

“The Republican majority has so many members in extremely safe Republican seats that they get held hostage in negotiations from the conservatives within their own caucus,” he added.

This was especially problematic during negotiations over North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill,” HB2, the anti-LGBTQ legislation that banned transgender individuals from using the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity.

“[Republicans] had a hard time coming to the table for sincere negotiations because they had so many people in their caucus who were very protected by the partisan districts and were just holding out to right-wing ideology,” Meyer said.

Meyer’s district is sandwiched between two gerrymandered districts, though his district was not found to be drawn unconstitutionally. 

“Those were two districts where they packed the black voters of Durham county … so my district ended up being disproportionately white,” said Meyer. “And so, in a way, my district was drawn so that Republicans would have a chance to win a seat in two very liberal counties.”

Like Meyer, Rep. Chaz Beasley (D-Mecklenburg), is also bordered by two racially gerrymandered districts.

“My district was not one of the districts that was challenged under the recent Covington case, however, it did border two of them,” Beasley said, referring to the racial gerrymander case. 

Beasley said the shape of his district will need to change because of its location. “Given that this has been going on for almost a year-and-a-half, I’m hoping we’re getting closer to some sort of resolution,” he said.

When he was a freshman Democrat, Beasley managed to spearhead the unanimous passage of his key priorities, despite the fact that the House was run by a supermajority of Republicans.

“It does take more work, it takes more work in terms of building consensus and building relationships, so you do have to make sure you’re putting in the work,” said Beasley. “That being said, I think that the direction of our state would be very different if the Democrats were, at the very minimum, not in the super minority.”

The offices of North Carolina Republican Speaker of the House Tim Moore and House Majority Leader John Bell did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.