If the past several years have seen North Carolina earn a reputation as the state with some of the most restrictive voting rules in the nation, a series of recent court rulings offers some hope for the future.
This week, a three-judge panel ruled that North Carolina's GOP lawmakers illegally drew the House and Senate voting districts according to race in 2011, going out of their way to lump minorities together into single electoral zones in an effort to minimize the clout those voters might have across multiple districts—leverage they presumably feared would have been used against Republican candidates. The panel ordered the district lines redrafted. In an opinion filed Thursday for the case of Covington v The State of North Carolina, Circuit Judge James A. Wynn Jr. stated:
After careful consideration of the evidence presented, we conclude that race was the predominant factor motivating the drawing of all challenged districts. Moreover, Defendants have not shown that their use of race to draw any of these districts was narrowly tailored to further a compelling state interest.
All told, 28 of the state's 170 legislative districts were found to have been unconstitutionally drawn to enclose specific blocs of voters based on race, effectively limiting the diversity of the electorate for state House and Senate races.
"Today’s federal ruling overturning North Carolina’s racially-gerrymandered legislative districts is a tremendous victory for our state’s voters and for everyone who values fair elections,” Bob Hall, executive director of advocacy group Democracy North Carolina, said in a statement. “With computerized precision, GOP lawmakers drew zig-zagging political district lines that separated black voters from white and other voters in order to prevent multi-racial fusion coalitions from electing candidates the Republicans feared. It’s essentially computerized apartheid. It’s also a cynical replay of a strategy from over a century ago that promotes racial division to protect white political supremacy.”
The court's ruling is the latest in a series of blows against GOP-led efforts in North Carolina to create electoral conditions favorable to their own party. Earlier this year, a court ruled that North Carolina's first and 12th congressional districts were also racially gerrymandered, and ordered the state to redraw district lines. And just last month a separate panel of judges blocked North Carolina's contentious 2013 voter ID law as "discriminatory" toward black voters, saying:
Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that do not exist. Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the state’s true motivation.
Last week, protesters flooded Greensboro, North Carolina's Guilford County Courthouse to demand local election officials comply with the necessary adjustments mandated by the repudiation of the 2013 law.
But those cheering this week's gerrymandering decision will have to wait until 2018 to see any changes in the shape of the state's Senate and House districts. According to the court ruling, "due to the mechanics of state and federal election requirements, there is insufficient time, at this late date" for North Carolina to make the necessary changes ahead of the upcoming 2016 elections. So, come November, voters in 28 districts will be forced, once again, to cast their ballots in illegally rendered, racially motivated districts.
Regardless of its electoral delay, the ruling has the potential to tip the balance of power in the state—one whose GOP-lead General Assembly is responsible, among other things, for passing and maintaining North Carolina's bigoted anti-trans bathroom bill.
In a statement to The News and Record, state GOP lawmakers David Lewis and Bob Rucho wrote that they are "disappointed in the district court’s opinion, which contradicts the Obama Justice Department’s preclearance of these maps and rulings from the N.C. Supreme Court upholding them as constitutional,” The duo added that they are "relieved for voters that the district court did not disrupt the current election that is already underway."