NC’s late summer political turmoil undermines democracy

NC’s late summer political turmoil undermines democracy

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing

The confluence of three essentially unprecedented events combined to make last week an extraordinary one in the modern history of North Carolina policy and politics.

On Tuesday, the state conducted a special election to choose 15% of its delegation to the U.S House of Representatives. Under normal circumstances, such an event and its aftermath would have dominated the news cycle all week – especially given that one of the two districts had been the subject of intense national scrutiny ever since rampant ballot fraud tainted the 2018 vote.

Not last week.

Just hours after the acceptance and concession speeches had been delivered in the 3rd and 9th Congressional District elections, state House Speaker Tim Moore called a surprise vote on a motion to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s June veto of the state budget bill for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. The vote took place without meaningful debate and with a bare minimum of 64 of the House’s 120 members ready and able to vote.

Meanwhile, as these two events were occurring, the state House and Senate were moving forward with a new, court-ordered process to effect a massive overhaul of North Carolina’s legislative maps – a process that is supposed to correct many years of unconstitutional and illegal partisan gerrymandering.

Sadly, all three events ended up providing powerful evidence that corruption, big money, cynicism and the lust for power continue to poison our politics.

Big money, unfair districts, absent voters

While the special congressional elections appear – at least thus far – not to have been fouled by the overt corruption that infected absentee balloting last November in the 9th District, they were still deeply flawed.

Take the districts themselves. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s irresponsible punt on the issue of partisan gerrymandering earlier this summer, the two districts in question – like the rest of North Carolina’s congressional map – remain a monument to rigged elections. Add to this the obscene sums of dark, outside money that poured into the 9th District and the desultory voter turnout in both races (just 22% in the 3rd and 35% in the 9th) and it’s hard to see either race in a favorable light.

Add to all of this the plausible argument advanced by some advocates and journalists that GOP-inspired purges of the voter rolls in recent years may have wrongfully disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters – particularly Black voters – and the grounds for concern grow larger.

The veto override scam

Gov. Roy Cooper and his fellow Democrats were on the money when they decried Moore’s sudden veto override vote and the tactics he employed to pull it off with phrases like “bald faced lie” and “deceptive surprise.” “Deceitful,” “cowardly,” and “the kind of maneuver one might expect of a high school student council leader” would have also been apt.

The very notion that 55 Republicans were on the floor of the House at 8:30 in the morning on a Wednesday, while only a smattering of Democrats were present provides compelling evidence that the scheme was carefully orchestrated. But even if it was somehow mere coincidence or attributable to a miscommunication (or a lame foul-up by Democratic leaders), basic human decency and honor should have dissuaded Moore from attempting such a blatant assault on democracy. Unfortunately, in the age of Trump, such concepts are widely seen by his allies as the concerns of suckers and saps.

Wednesday’s disgraceful episode will be Moore’s legacy.

Redistricting process: Not fixed yet

Finally, while it has been marginally better than in the past to watch state lawmakers follow the Superior Court’s order by drawing new legislative districts more or less out in the open (as opposed to the utter secrecy of the past), the process has still been deeply flawed.

This hard truth was on full display last week as lawmakers of both parties devoted almost constant attention in their map drawing to the twin objectives of “incumbent protection” and combating “double-bunking” – that is, protecting their own hides. And while courts may have yet to dismiss this practice as unconstitutional in the same way they have struck down other forms of gerrymandering, it remains a noxious and destructive practice in which, as the saying goes, politicians are selecting their voters, rather than the other way around.

If ever there was concrete evidence that the responsibility for redistricting simply must, once and for all, be taken away from lawmakers and the legislative staff they employ and turned over to a truly independent commission, these most recent developments are it.

Democracy at risk

The bottom line: North Carolina can and must do better. Ours may be a divided state with respect to ideological debates over taxes, the role of government, public education, guns, the environment and intimate issues of human autonomy. But when it comes to how we choose the people who represent us and the rules those people employ to pass the laws that govern our society, we will continue to adhere to the current regime of ends-justify-the-means politics at great risk to our democracy.