I will say one thing for the new state legislative maps under development by our GOP overlords in Raleigh: They make more geographic sense than what we have now.
As a resident of Greensboro’s Lindley Park neighborhood, I currently live in House District 60, a strange animal that mainly serves inner-city High Point, with a thin tendril traveling up Business 85 and roaming across southwest Greensboro to an eventual destination in an industrial no-man’s land near the airport. The proposed map, featuring districts that are markedly more compact, puts me in District 58, a southern Greensboro territory that includes Four Seasons Town Center and Adams Farm, while reaching up into Starmount. The new District 60, meanwhile, represents a consolidated column rising from the county line on the south side of High Point, through Jamestown and up to the airport.
That’s really the only good thing that can be said about the new maps.
Their nakedly partisan skew once again demonstrates that the scorched-earth politics of the Republican majority in the General Assembly is primarily about maintaining maximal power and minimizing input from anyone who’s not on the team.
The official name of North Carolina’s state legislative body — the General Assembly — doesn’t come anywhere close to capturing the political reality. It sounds so quaint — supposedly an assembly of delegates from all corners of the state representing varied interests who come together to hash out differences and govern through imperfect compromises. But the term General Assembly is a farce without the “GOP-controlled” modifier; for the roughly 50 percent of North Carolinians who identify as left of center, the extreme-right-wing GOP gang that runs state government is better described as an overlord.
Last election — when 49.8 percent of voters supported Republican Donald Trump for president and 49.0 percent supported Democrat Roy Cooper for governor — provides an unassailable metric demonstrating that the state is split right down the political center. Yet, as the News & Observer reported on Sunday, Trump would have carried 33 of the 50 proposed Senate districts and 76 of the 120 proposed House districts.
Democracy is under assault on numerous fronts in the United States, and it can sometimes be difficult to summon outrage at the predictable intransigence of the GOP leadership in Raleigh when President Trump is giving winking support to white supremacists, churning out propaganda while attacking the press as an enemy of the state, and undermining the rule of law by pardoning a former sheriff who engaged in a defiant campaign of racial profiling against Latinx people.
Trump is the new shock-and-awe force of right-wing extremism, but the Republicans in Raleigh have been at this since roughly 2013, ramming through one unpopular law after another against the will of the people, from severely restricting access to the ballot box and abortion services to attacking immigrants and transgender people.
For the roughly 50 percent of the population that identifies as moderate to progressive, mostly concentrated in the cities, the implicit message from the overlords is: Shut up and deal with it. Progressive urbanites pay taxes, but don’t have a political voice. The Republicans whose 2011 redistricting play was struck down by the courts as an impermissible racial gerrymander had an opportunity to regain legitimacy. They could have heeded repeated calls from a bipartisan chorus of reformers to implement nonpartisan redistricting. Instead, they hired Thomas Hofeller, the man behind the curtain who was responsible for the 2011 travesty, to draw new maps to preserve their power.
There may yet be a reckoning. Similar to North Carolina, Wisconsin has a state government where progressives are effectively locked out of governing decisions because Republican lawmakers have drawn the maps to guarantee their continued dominance, despite the fact that the state is politically split down the middle. Last year, for the first time in history, a panel of federal judges ruled that the Wisconsin redistricting plan is so partisan that it violates the First Amendment right to freedom of association and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The US Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case, Gill v. Whitworth, on Oct. 3.
The nation’s high court has previously ruled against challenges to partisan gerrymandering, but Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the swing vote, has indicated in the past that he would entertain a change of course if someone could propose a workable standard. The plaintiffs in Gill have offered a tool that might meet Kennedy’s specifications. Called the “efficiency gap,” it measures “wasted votes.” That’s the number of votes cast for a losing candidate and the number of votes cast for a victorious candidate beyond what is needed to win. The way legislative districts have been drawn in Wisconsin and North Carolina, Republican votes are highly efficient while Democratic votes are largely inefficient. The difference between the two amounts to an “efficiency gap.” Partisan gerrymandering in the two states disenfranchises Democratic voters by packing them into a small number of districts where a few Democrats will win by overwhelming numbers, while distributing Democratic voters throughout the remainder of the districts at percentages just short of what they need to carry those districts.
In the context described above, “wasted votes” has a highly technical meaning. But it’s also common sense. We’ve all heard the argument that it’s a waste of time to vote because the system is rigged. When people give up on voting as a means of exercising political will, democracy dies.