The path to reviving our democracy

The path to reviving our democracy

GerrymanderingThree essential steps to reform and restore faith in North Carolina elections

With the climax of the mostly unpleasant and conflict-ridden 2016 election cycle just 90 days away, many North Carolinians are feeling rather cynical and disillusioned these days. Some would attribute this to a presidential race that has been frequently dispiriting and even frightening, but legislative elections are also a big part of the story. Despite the widespread view that elected representatives are performing poorly – polls show the popularity of Congress and the General Assembly hovering in the single digits – voters also understand how hamstrung they are when it comes to effecting meaningful electoral changes.

They may not grasp all of the details or mechanics of how the current situation came to be, but North Carolinians rightfully perceive that the electoral system is – especially when it comes to legislative elections – rigged. In the majority of districts, the decisions about who will actually serve in Congress and the General Assembly in 2017 have already been made. Gerrymandered maps and campaign finance laws that protect the power and secrecy of the super-rich guarantee this.

Meanwhile, lest the citizens get any bright ideas about rocking the boat, current powers-that-be have also been working diligently to erect roadblocks that make voting (and even just registering to vote) much more difficult.

So what is to be done? Can this democracy be saved? If it’s going to happen, three absolutely essential steps stand out:

#1 – Attacking the gerrymandering virus

Gerrymandering – the practice of drawing electoral maps so as to essentially guarantee certain outcomes – goes back a long way in United States history. This does not in any way, however, make it a venerable institution. To the contrary, gerrymandering is like a lot of other once-decrepit electoral traditions – most notably the disenfranchisement of women and people of color – a plague on the nation that simply must be eradicated.

Consider the following from a recent fact sheet explaining a new anti-gerrymandering lawsuit brought by the government watchdog group, Common Cause of North Carolina:

Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians were robbed of their ability to elect the candidates of their choice through this blatant partisan gerrymander by the Legislature.

  • Republican Legislators publicly and repeatedly stated that their goal was to gerrymander congressional districts in North Carolina to ensure a 10-3 Republican majority despite an equally split electorate.
  • There were 2.6 million registered Democrats, 2 million registered Republicans, and 1.8 million unaffiliated registered voters in North Carolina.
  • In 2012, 51 percent of North Carolina voters cast their ballots for a Democratic U.S. House candidate, yet only 31 percent of the seats went to Democrats. In 2014, Democrats won 44 percent of the vote but only 23 percent of seats.”

This situation is, in a word, obscene. Such outrageous manipulations undermine the very foundations of democracy and produce the perverse state of affairs in which politicians choose their voters, rather than the other way around.

As Senator Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg County told NC Policy Watch in a recent radio interview in which he explained how the state policymaking apparatus has been captured by the five-plus percent of the state’s voters on the far right who dominate Republican primaries: “The root cause of [North Carolina’s notorious LGBT discrimination law] HB2, in my view, is gerrymandering.”

Happily, there is hope on this front. Many other states and jurisdictions have enacted laws that empower nonpartisan commissions to draw simple, non-politicized, non-discriminatory electoral maps. Such maps could be drawn for North Carolina in a matter of weeks – maybe even days – if state leaders would but give their assent.

What’s more, Common Cause NC’s creative new lawsuit could actually help bring this about in North Carolina. This is from the news release that accompanied the lawsuit last Friday:

Filed in the Middle District Court in Greensboro, the challenge in Common Cause v. Rucho could be a watershed moment in the fight against gerrymandering. While judges have weighed in on racial gerrymandering and set constraints for such factors as equal population in drawing voting maps, the courts have largely avoided determining if partisan gerrymandering is legal. The lawsuit filed by Common Cause seeks to resolve that lingering question, arguing that manipulation of voting maps for partisan gain is unconstitutional.

Common Cause North Carolina has been a longtime opponent of all forms of gerrymandering, working with a broad bipartisan coalition to champion impartial redistricting for more than a decade….

The challenge in Common Cause v. Rucho argues that the legislature’s blatant partisan gerrymander is a clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The full lawsuit filing can be read online at CommonCause.org/rucho.

The North Carolina gerrymandering suit comes as Common Cause has filed a separate court challenge to gerrymandered voting maps drawn by Maryland Democrats.”

Keep your fingers crossed.

#2 – Making voting simple and easy

The recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision striking down North Carolina’s “monster” voter suppression law is a huge step forward in ending artificial roadblocks to voting. But there is clearly much more to be done if North Carolina is to not just tear down walls, but affirmatively encourage and facilitate voting by average citizens.

A classic example of the kind of hard work that will be necessary in this realm occurred yesterday when good government advocates in Greensboro succeeded in convincing the Guilford County Board of Elections to abandon the worst parts of a plan to limit early voting prior to the November election. The Board’s decision was imperfect, but it did reject proposals to cut out Sunday voting and eliminate the sites serving NC A&T University, UNC-Greensboro, and several African-American neighborhoods and preserved 10 days of early voting at 25 locations.

Ultimately, it will take years of determined local advocacy like this plus a number of additional state law changes (Oregon’s recent move to make voter registration automatic for all who do not affirmatively opt out is a great example) if we are to get where we need to go. The recent court decisions striking down barriers here and in Texas and Wisconsin, however, are a hugely encouraging sign that the pendulum is again moving in the right direction.

#3 – Reviving publicly-funded, “voter-owned” elections

The all-important third leg in reforming elections in North Carolina and the rest of the country involves ending the hegemony of the super-rich. A system that features fairly drawn maps and broad voter participation would be a huge improvement over the current situation, but it won’t be enough if billionaires and giant corporations can still purchase elected officials and candidates for office with impunity.

A decade ago, North Carolina was making real progress in this realm and serving as a national role model with laws that provided public campaign financing for judicial candidates and a number of “council of state” offices. Unfortunately, it was one of the first acts of the state’s current conservative leadership to roll back those laws under the disingenuous guise of ending “welfare for politicians.”

As a practical matter, these repeals only served to consign most politicians to the “welfare rolls” of fat cat campaign contributors – many of them not even from North Carolina. As the good folks at N.C Voters for Clean Elections put it a while back:

Without clean elections we’re getting less democracy for more money. The skyrocketing cost of campaigns pushes candidates into a money chase, and almost all the campaign donations (90%) from North Carolina donors comes from only 1% of the state’s population. Voters are turned off, and many qualified candidates are excluded by a lack of funds. Candidates spend too much time raising money and not enough time interacting with voters.”

Reviving state policies based upon these obvious truths remains a critically important objective.

Going forward

The Catch-22 challenge of these ambitious reforms would seem to lie in somehow convincing the conservative politicians currently in charge to agree to sow what could amount to the seeds of their own demise. As recent events have demonstrated, however, cracks are starting to show in what had seemed an impenetrable façade. Let’s hope reform advocates keep pushing in all possible venues until it crumbles once and for all.