A stunning decision last week by a panel of judges in North Carolina threw out flawed legislative district maps and ordered new ones in a major victory for fair elections that may have national implications.
“The inescapable conclusion,” the judges wrote, was that the severely gerrymandered districts “do not permit voters to choose their representatives, but rather the representatives are choosing voters based upon sophisticated partisan sorting.”
“Thanks to the court’s landmark decision,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, “politicians in Raleigh will no longer be able to rig our elections through partisan gerrymandering.”
Not everyone cheered. Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger argued that the decision was the wrong one. But he rightly agreed to abide by the court’s decision. “To end this matter once and for all, we will follow the court’s instruction and move forward with adoption of a nonpartisan map,” Berger said in a news release.
The panel of three trial judges in Wake County — two Democrats and one Republican — said in their opinion that the Republican maps violated the North Carolina Constitution’s clauses guaranteeing free elections, equal protection under the law, and freedom of speech and assembly. Their decision “to apply core constitutional principles to this complex and divisive topic” was unanimous.
The court’s actions follow years of struggle and legal attempts to reverse the Republicans’ lopsided advantage, achieved through deliberately drawing maps that favored them in 10 of the state’s 13 congressional districts despite the fact that Republicans and Democrats are nearly evenly divided in North Carolina.
Similarly, in legislative races Republicans kept majorities in the state House and Senate despite winning less than half the votes in elections for each chamber.
When Democrats gerrymandered for decades while they controlled the legislature, it was just as wrong. But Republicans have elevated it to a fine art, stacking the deck with ruthless efficiency.
In another positive stroke, the court ordered that new maps be drawn at public hearings, with computer screens visible to legislators and public observers. The new maps are to be drawn by Sept. 18 using only traditional redistricting criteria — including equal population, contiguity and compactness — and said legislators could not use the unconstitutional maps as a starting point.
Ideally, of course, lawmakers shouldn’t be drawing district lines in the first place. Maybe now Berger will be chastened enough to allow bipartisan efforts to create an independent redistricting panel to move forward.
As for the national implications, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year declined to take action on gerrymandering, leaving the issue in states’ hands. Cases that are pending in other states may be affected by the outcome in North Carolina. And politicians elsewhere may be less brazen in attempts to tilt elections in their favor.
To be sure, this welcome breeze of fair play has been a long time coming. But as the Rev. Martin Luther King once said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”