by Jordan Green
Taking state Rep. David Lewis at his word — that the new congressional district map adopted by the GOP-controlled General Assembly did not factor in race — one could easily conclude that the process was a brazen violation of the Voting Rights Act.
I can’t believe I’m writing this but, in fact, the map appears to uphold the constitutional guarantee that African Americans hold an equal opportunity to participate in the political process, as enforced by the Voting Rights Act.
Follow me through this.
Since 1992, North Carolina has had two congressional districts drawn to provide black citizens with the opportunity to elect a candidate of choice — the 1st in the northeast corner of the state and the 12th running along Interstate 85 from Charlotte up to Greensboro. In 2011, the Republicans packed black voters into the two districts in an effort to keep most of the remaining districts safe for candidates of their own party. But in early February, a panel of federal judges ruled that the two minority districts were unacceptable racial gerrymanders, and ordered the legislature to redraw the map.
The new map, which will be used in a newly scheduled June 7 primary specially called for congressional races — the rest of the primary, including the presidential races, will go forward on March 15 as planned — reduces black voting-age population from 52.0 to 43.8 percent in the 1st district and from 49.6 to 35.3 percent in the 12th district. The radical overhaul of the 12th does away with the serpentine configuration stretching up to Greensboro, with the new district instead encompassing most of urban Mecklenburg County.
The critical factor is this: In each of the two minority-influence districts, roughly 62 percent of the Democratic electorate is African American, giving black voters a clear opportunity to elect a candidate of choice in the Democratic primary. Going into the general election, the Democratic skew of the two districts virtually ensures that the party nominee will win.
There’s some evidence that within the Democratic Party, racially polarized voting is on the wane. Most dramatically, Democrats in North Carolina chose Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary, and Obama went on to narrowly carry the state in the general election. More locally, Earline Parmon, who is black, easily won election in 2012 and ran unopposed in 2014 in Forsyth County’s Senate District 32, where whites hold a roughly 10 percent edge over blacks in voter registration. Meanwhile, in Guilford County’s House District 57, a Democratic electorate that is roughly two-thirds African American, favored Pricey Harrison, who is white, over Jim Kee, who is black, by a margin of 68.6 percent to 31.5 percent in the 2014 primary.
The Republican mapmakers made it plain that they drew the new map in such a way as to maximize their chances to maintain a 10-3 partisan advantage in the Congressional delegation. You couldn’t ask for a more clear admission that partisan gerrymandering essentially amounts to the party in control canceling out the wishes of voters by pre-ordaining the outcome of the election. As an indication of how absurdly rigged the system is, 51 percent of two-party votes were cast for Democrats in the 2012 North Carolina congressional races, while Democrats only won four of the 13 seats that year. Using a statistical algorithm to randomly redraw boundaries of the state’s congressional districts in the most compact fashion possible, a Duke University study found that Democrats would have carried seven or eight seats. While the Democrats engaged in gerrymandering when they held power, the 7-6 advantage they held was much closer to the balance of political sentiments in the state.
While the new map appears to meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, its makers could end up facing a legal challenge based on political gerrymandering. As part of the three-judge panel that ordered the General Assembly to redraw the map, Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. wrote in a concurring opinion: “Elections should be decided through a contest of the issues, not skillful mapmaking. Today, modern computer mapping allows for gerrymandering on steroids as political mapmakers can easily identify individual registrations on a house-by-house basis, mapping their way to victory.”
He went on to say, “Gerrymandering may well have an expiration date as the Supreme Court has found that the term ‘legislature’ in the Elections Clause is broad enough to include independent redistricting commissions.”
In the meantime, the new map is a marked improvement. By unpacking black voters from the 1st and 12th districts, the Republican mapmakers have, against their stated interest of maintaining partisan advantage, found themselves forced to make the remaining districts more politically competitive.
Looking at the 2010 US Senate contest between Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Elaine Marshall, the margin in which Burr prevailed over Marshall would have closed by between 2.0 and 6.4 percentage points in eight out of 10 of the Republican-leaning districts. The 5th District, stretching from Winston-Salem to Boone, becomes 3.7 percent more competitive while the 6th District, covering part of Guilford County, becomes 5.9 percent more competitive.
And in the new 13th District, which includes major portions of Greensboro and High Point, 2012 election numbers reveal the same Elaine Marshall and June Atkinson, both competent and experienced Democrats, prevailing over tea party-inspired Republican challengers by a hair.
In our reflexive disgust for everything the Republicans in Raleigh dish out to us, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the new congressional districting map is both more racially fair and politically competitive.