Election 2016

Why the North Carolina GOP Has Brought Chaos to the 2016 Election

Racial gerrymandering, unconstitutional judicial election methods and a confusing voter ID law have created a bewildering mess.

Signs direct voters at the Kennedy Recreation Center on November 4, 2014 in Washington, DC

Because of a slew of election law changes passed in recent years, the North Carolina Republican Party has thrown the state’s 2016 elections into chaos. Racial gerrymandering, unconstitutional judicial election methods and a confusing voter ID law have created a bewildering mess in a state once praised for its accessible elections.  

Bob Phillips, director of good-government nonprofit Common Cause North Carolina, says, “For these things to be happening at the same time, especially in the swirl of a presidential, gubernatorial and senatorial election year, is definitely unprecedented.”

So how did it come to this? The tale begins with astonishing Republican victories six years ago.

Flipping the state legislature

In November 2010, Republicans riding the Tea Party wave swept state legislatures nationwide, taking over 21 additional chambers across the country. One of the most drastic takeovers was in North Carolina, where the GOP gained control of both legislative bodies for the first time since Reconstruction, when the two major parties looked nothing like they do today.

The GOP gains of 2010 weren’t just the result of an angry electorate downtrodden by the Great Recession or the typical backlash against an incumbent president’s party. An outside political spending group that could accept unlimited donations, thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision earlier that year and other rulings that followed, had planned its electoral rampage of the states.

The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) knew that after the 2010 U.S. Census, most state legislatures would be tasked with redrawing their legislative and congressional districts, allowing them to build on their gains in state houses and Congress for years to come. The RSLC raised $30 million in mostly corporate donations for its Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP), which spent the money to help elect Republican state legislators nationwide. The GOP gained a historic 721 state legislative seats in the 2010 election cycle.

The RSLC-influenced North Carolina by donating $1.25 million to Real Jobs NC, a political committee co-founded by conservative mega-donor Art Pope. Republicans gained 26 North Carolina House and Senate seats in 2010, with, as the Institute for Southern Studies reported, the help of Real Jobs and other groups funded by Pope.

Gerrymandering the state

After the 2010 elections, the RSLC’s nonprofit State Government Leadership Foundation paid expert GOP mapmaker Tom Hofeller to visit North Carolina 10 times, helping craft congressional districts that would disproportionately benefit Republicans by packing Democratic voters into a small number of districts. Three of these districts are among the nation’s 10 most gerrymandered.

Under the new districts in 2012, Democratic votes for Congress outnumbered Republican votes, yet GOP candidates won nine out of the state’s 13 U.S. House seats. Now the distribution is even more skewed, with Republicans up 10-to-3 after the 2014 elections, when Democratic votes accounted for 44 percent of the total.

Democrats have done it, too. “In the past we’ve had rounds and rounds of challenges to maps that have been gerrymandered,” says Jenn Frye, associate director of voting rights watchdog Democracy North Carolina. “But how radical the gerrymandering is this time is unprecedented in recent history.”

The underrepresentation of Democratic voters wasn’t the only injustice surrounding the voting districts. On Feb. 5, a federal court struck down North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts as racial gerrymanders, finding that the mapmakers had relied primarily on race, in violation of the Constitution. Two elections have already been held using the unconstitutional districts.

State lawyers immediately appealed, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the ruling until after this year’s midterm elections, but they had no such luck. Now new districts, drawn by none other than Hofeller, who created the unconstitutional maps in the first place, could also be struck down for at least two reasons: The mapmakers this time entirely disregarded race, which may violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and the maps were expressly designed to maintain Republicans’ 10 seats, a partisan advantage may not be a legitimate state interest. The state NAACP is asking the court to draw up new districts itself.

What we have now is a confusing scenario: North Carolinians will vote in two primaries—once on the originally scheduled March 15 primary, and again on June 7—and their March votes for these congressional seats will be thrown out.

Even without knowing the final district lines, congressional candidates are having to retool their campaign strategies, as many districts would be altered by the new maps, in some cases sending a district 90 miles away from its current Congresswoman and pitting two sitting House members against each other.  

Two other lawsuits remain in federal court, one that challenges both the congressional and legislative districts, and another that contests only the legislative districts.

Fair elections advocates like Phillips and Frye have long championed an independent redistricting commission, which they hope would take partisan politics out of the process. North Carolina residents agree; 59 percent of voters want nonpartisan redistricting, according to a recent poll by Public Policy Polling. A bipartisan bill to set up such a commission passed the state House but is stalled in the Senate, which has refused to consider it. Even GOP Gov. Pat McCrory has said the redistricting process needs to change.

Controlling the court

The RSLC, in part through its so-called Judicial Fairness Initiative, has poured millions into state supreme court elections. In North Carolina in 2012, for example, it gave nearly $1.2 million to a political group that steered the money into a judicial race, supporting conservative incumbent justice Paul Newby, who squeaked out a close election win.

When the state supreme court twice ruled in favor of the unconstitutional congressional districts, created by the RSLC’s paid mapmaker and legislators whom the RSLC helped elect, Newby did not recuse himself.

The RSLC’s $1.3 million in 2014 to help get more conservative justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court failed, but the legislature has since tinkered with the way justices retain their seats, with the court’s conservative majority on the line in 2016.

Instead of a typical election, an incumbent justice would only have to survive an up-or-down vote—a retention election—to keep his or her seat. Typically retention elections give the incumbent better odds for staying on, and state Sen. Josh Stein (D) nicknamed the law the “Justice Bob Edmunds Protection Act” because of its obvious purpose to keep Edmunds, the conservative incumbent, in office. If Edmunds doesn’t get 50 percent of the vote, Gov. McCrory would appoint a replacement for a two-year term, ensuring conservative control of the court.

Because of the bill’s timing and the speed with which lawmakers pushed it through the legislature, Phillips says the move “does have that reek of politics more than thoughtful reform.”

On Feb. 18, a state superior court told attorneys in a case opposing the retention election model that it violates the state constitution. Challengers will have to file for candidacy and launch their campaigns very quickly for this pivotal election that could flip the court’s 4-3 conservative majority.

Voter Suppression Menu

The GOP’s 2013 monster election bill contained many anti-democratic features, such as ending same-day voter registration, disqualifying ballots cast in the wrong precinct, ending pre-registration for teenagers, ending straight party voting and other steps to “police” the polls such as turnout-deterring tougher voter ID requirements. The voter ID provision purported to prevent voter fraud, which has been nearly nonexistent nationally.

Worried the ID component would overturn the entire law in a suit challenging many of the bill’s components, the legislature altered the language, allowing voters without an acceptable ID to still cast their ballots after signing a form explaining their “reasonable impediment” to obtaining one. Consequently, the voter ID provision was separated from the rest of that case; both cases have been argued, though judges have yet to issue decisions.

Voting rights advocates such as the NC NAACP have complained that the State Board of Elections is distributing misleading information about the requirement, that voters aren’t aware of the reasonable impediment clause, and that some poll workers aren’t getting the proper training.

It turns out that some citizens’ reasonable impediments come from the very agencies tasked with providing them with identification. An Asheville Department of Motor Vehicles wrongfully denied an 86-year-old woman a free voter ID card because she changed her name after getting married in 1950, and an out-of-state college student was sent back and forth between the DMV and the Board of Elections, failing to obtain an ID after two days of trying. Neither out-of-state nor college IDs will be accepted at the polls.

Frye shares the NAACP’s concerns, as her organization documented problems with poll workers in the 2014 elections, when out-of-precinct voting and same-day registration were not in effect.

Says Phillips, “We’re worried that a large segment of voters, particularly out-of-state college students, will be disenfranchised.”

No signs of Republicans letting up

Republicans already have their sights on 2020, when another U.S. Census comes out and all states will redraw their congressional and legislative districts. The Republican State Leadership Committee plans to spend $125 million on efforts to take over more state legislatures by 2020 so they can continue drawing voting districts and enacting barriers to voting access. But they’ll have to be prepared for more lawsuits from fair elections advocates who have already successfully challenged GOP-drawn districts in states such as North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and Virginia and voter ID laws in states such as Arkansas and Texas.

“All of this really comes down to a simple concept of politicians picking voters versus voters picking politicians,” says Frye. “It’s an affront to the democratic process. Elections should be competitive and accessible for all eligible voters. There shouldn’t be barriers for voters to participate.”

Alex Kotch is an independent investigative journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @alexkotch.
 
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