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What the fight over fair elections is really all about

[1]As NC looks at election rules and redistricting, a powerful new book reminds us why these issues are even on the table

This is an especially busy week in the fight for fair elections in North Carolina. Late yesterday, a panel of three federal judges issued an order in the case of [2]North Carolina v. Covington [2] – a challenge to North Carolina’s unconstitutionally gerrymandered legislative districts. The ruling came just hours after the North Carolina State Board of Elections conducted a hearing on a set of new proposed rules [3] that could rein in some of the worst voter suppression tactics employed by conservatives during the 2016 election.

With any luck, we could be on the verge of some important breakthroughs in the effort to enfranchise voters and reclaim our democracy.

Fairer districts on the way?

The Covington case, of course, is just one of many challenges that have been posed down through the years to gerrymandering in North Carolina. What makes it such a potential game changer, however, is the fact that it will soon force the adoption of new and significantly different electoral maps for the General Assembly.

As most readers will recall, North Carolina is a deeply “purple” state in which support for the two main political parties is very narrowly divided. Despite this more or less even split, however, Republicans have, through skillful gerrymandering (much of it race-based), managed to all but guarantee themselves large, “veto-proof” majorities in both houses of the legislature for several years.

Now, however, these majorities (or, at least, the maps behind them) are on the way out. As NC Policy Watch reporter Melissa Boughton reported last night [2], the judges assigned to the Covington case have finally run out of patience with the legislative defendants:

A federal three-judge panel has ordered the North Carolina General Assembly to draw new legislative maps by 5 p.m. Sept. 1….

The three-judge panel wrote that the lack of action from lawmakers since its August 2016 order to redraw new districts ‘indicate that the General Assembly does not appreciate the need to move promptly to cure the unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in the 2011 districting plans.’

The judges went on to spell out several details with which lawmakers will be required to abide in crafting the new maps. Though they denied plaintiffs’ request for a special election in 2017, the ruling makes clear that the 2018 legislative elections are likely to look very different than they have in 2012, ’14 and ’16. The North Carolina NAACP called the decision “a major victory for our democracy and a huge step towards restoring justice in the electoral process.”

Voter suppression tactics under the microscope

Similarly hopeful news could be in the offing at the State Board of Elections. As Democracy North Carolina executive director Bob Hall made clear in both a letter to the board [4] and a statement he delivered at yesterday’s hearing [5], the new proposed rules would make important progress in reeling in the destructive and inaccurate voter protest tactics employed by the McCrory campaign after last November’s election. This from the statement [6]:

Overall, Democracy North Carolina supports these changes because the current Protest Form can be too easily misused….

Last year, Pat McCrory’s campaign and his Republican allies used the form to make outrageous claims of voter fraud; it could be a different party next time. They used dozens of Protest Forms to accuse more than 600 voters of committing voter fraud or casting illegal absentee ballots – but it turns out more than 95% of those cases were false. More than 95%. Democracy North Carolina spent months investigating the cases, and we are submitting that report, the “Deceit of Voter Fraud.” It can be found at: https://democracync.org/research/deceit-voter-fraud/ [7].

The report documents that hundreds of voters were needlessly maligned. Many had their names in newspaper stories for being accused of voter fraud, some were the topic of social media attacks.”

New book places the strategic assault on voting rights in context

Whatever the ultimate outcomes in these two battles, caring and thinking people should not lose sight of the forest for the trees in assessing the fight over fair elections and what’s really at stake. The sad truth of the matter is that each is merely one small skirmish in a long running national contest launched cynically and intentionally several years ago by leaders of the American Right. Their purpose, as Professor Nancy MacLean of Duke University argues persuasively in her new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America [8] is to literally remake the United States into an oligarchy that is of, by and for a wealthy minority.

Those inclined to view such a characterization as alarmist or over-the-top would do well to get hold of MacLean’s book (or at least check out some of the excerpts from her talk at an NC Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon last week [9]). What one will quickly discover is that Democracy in Chains is a vitally important piece of reportage on (and a damning indictment of) the origins, past, present and ultimate objectives of modern conservativism.

The book, which is steeped in original research, stems from MacLean’s close examination of the archives of James Buchanan – an obscure right-wing economist who played a huge and mostly behind-the-scenes role in birthing the modern, Koch Brothers-dominated “libertarian” movement. As University of Iowa Professor Colin Gordon noted in a thorough and glowing recent review of the book [10]:

It establishes the Jim Crow roots of the modern right, not just through the GOP’s southern strategy but through shared doubts about the compatibility of property rights and democratic rule. It demonstrates that the lurch right in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Iowa represents not some existential crisis of a forgotten working class but the triumph of a long push to use statehouses as laboratories for autocracy. It understands the post–Citizens United wave of ‘dark money’ as but the most recent chapter in a long history of corporate stealth and influence.”

And this is from the book itself, as it explains the inextricable link between the rise of the hard right and the sustained effort to control elections and voting:

With fewer people voting, everything will be so much easier to achieve. In the two years after Republican candidates swept the 2010 midterm elections, ALEC-backed legislators in forty-one states introduced more than 180 bills to restrict who could vote and how. The measure would most reduce the political influence of low-income voters, and young people, who had been inclining leftward. America had not witnessed such a burst of limits on voting rights since the calculated mass disenfranchisement instituted by southern states a century ago, But now the effort was national, not only regional, and before long it was affecting outcomes.

A related strategy further distorts political representation to advance the property rights supremacist project. One part of this initiative was the most audacious gerrymander in U.S. history, with the purpose of ensuring systematic underrepresentation of Americans viewed as troublesome by the cause and overrepresentation of the more manageable—while lining up the supermajority of reliably controlled states needed to hold a constitutional convention…. It was a cunning project to amass state-level power to transform the nation by using the decennial redistricting process to sharply boost the power of Republicans, even where majorities backed Democrats, and pull the Republican Party to the right of its own voters in the process.”

Going forward

As the current pitched voting rights battles in North Carolina and elsewhere make clear, the fight against what MacLean rightfully characterizes as “property rights supremacists” is going to be a long, hard slog. With decades of work and billions of dollars already invested in the effort, Buchanan’s descendants will not go quietly into the night.

Colin Gordon, for one, is not optimistic:

Whatever the fate of Donald Trump and his cronies, the rule of the radical right — in Congress, in statehouses, in the courts — will remain largely unchecked. And with each electoral cycle or legislative session of that rule, the prospects for challenging it fade.”

Nancy MacLean, however, argues that there is hope – if we act soon:

Is this the country we want to live in and bequeath to our children and future generations? This is the real public choice. If we delay much longer, those who are imposing their stark utopia will choose for us.”

In North Carolina, taking back popular control over our elections is an obvious and critically important place to start.