A Wake County court ruled Sept. 3 that North Carolina’s state legislative maps displayed an unconstitutional form of partisan gerrymandering, ordering the state legislature to redraw maps by Sept. 18.
However, the decision is only one part of a larger story—nine years of targeted political manipulation by Republican lawmakers bent on maximizing their electoral gains.
“The Republican alignment of districts starting after the 2010 census is pretty well considered to be the most aggressive or egregious example of Republican gerrymandering in the nation,” said Mac McCorkle, professor of the practice of public policy.
According to McCorkle, partisan gerrymandering involves a “manipulation of electoral district boundaries in a way that unfairly advantages the [political] party in power.” Opposing parties have long recognized gerrymandering as an acceptable form of political control, embracing Andrew Jackson’s shrewd maxim: “To the winners go the spoils.”
Before the technological sophistication of the 21stst century, McCorkle explained, legislatures involved in gerrymandering would draw districts in an attempt to maximize voting support. But the accuracy of their efforts remained as unreliable as the limited technology they employed.
In recent years, lawmakers have capitalized on technological innovations to carve out districts with much more precision, creating absurdly shaped districts that have little connection to the actual geography and demographics of the state.
McCorkle explained that Republican gerrymandering intensified in 2010 when Republicans won a majority in the North Carolina state legislature.
Before that election, Democrats had also engaged in gerrymandering. When Republicans gained control of the legislature, however, they both gerrymandering to the extreme and weaponized it against African Americans and other minority voters. By employing precise technology to pack Democrats into three districts, they gained enough support to obtain and retain supermajorities in the legislature.
The extreme nature of Republican gerrymandering and the manipulation of precise technology led to questions of racial discrimination and of equal protection regarding voter rights, McCorkle explained.
“[The Republicans] kind of took the democratic approach and put it on steroids,” McCorkle said. “Finally, the public revulsion at what the Republicans did in [North Carolina] has kind of caught
up with them.”
Republican lawmakers claimed that race played no role in their manipulation of electoral districts. But, McCorkle argued “the [race] issue is right below the surface because the most loyal part of the Democratic base is African [American] and minority voters.”
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McCorkle was also careful to point out that the redrawn political map will not necessarily result in overwhelmingly Democratic representation in the state legislature. Gerrymandering can dampen political competition and accentuate election results, but it rarely brings to power an otherwise unpopular party.
After all, Republicans won in 2010 despite prior Democratic gerrymandering, indicating that the party held significant support among North Carolina voters.
“Democrats who say the only reason we’re not in control … is gerrymandering, that goes too far,” McCorkle said.
The most likely result is a more competitive political landscape and a deepening of the “purple” nature of North Carolina politics, a mixture of Democrats and Republicans representing North Carolina at the state and national level, he said.
The court’s recent decision to force Republicans to redistrict could also have a “domino effect,” McCorkle added. Other states with Democratic majorities in the courts could see this decision as an encouragement to make similar rulings in other states, altering political dynamics across the country.
Gerrymandering itself may become an endangered tool of politics, he asserted.
“Given the distrust and suspicion of everybody in the government, gerrymandering has now become an evil,” McCorkle said.