Government in North Carolina today bears the disfiguring marks of political apartheid. A virtually all-white party, the Republican Party, is in complete control of a multiracial state where the majority of non-white adults either vote Democratic or don't vote. Although Republicans received roughly half the votes cast in our state in 2012, they nonetheless won most of the elections.
Under different circumstances, this might be the product of our winner-take-all elections process. If Republican candidates got 51 percent of the vote in every district, for example, they'd win 100 percent of the seats. But that's not what's happening here.
No, the Republican control of North Carolina is attributable to the party's gerrymandering of the districts based on race. The majority-black districts they created elected Democrats by overwhelming margins, often with no opposition. Meanwhile, most of the "bleached" districts surrounding them went to Republicans.
That the Republicans engaged in racial gerrymandering—drawing squiggly, often ridiculous district lines in order to separate black voters from whites—is obvious from the evidence presented to a special three-judge panel of the N.C. Superior Court this week.
The panel, including Judge Paul Ridgeway of Raleigh, must decide whether what the Republicans did is acceptable or unconstitutional.
The answer, I'd say, is contained in a quiet comment made by a lawyer who was listening to the arguments Monday. "Friends don't do this to friends," he said. "The Republicans put more African-Americans in the General Assembly. But they're all sitting in the back rows."
I heard it as back of the bus.
It's true, under the district plans drawn up by the Republicans after the 2010 census, the number of African-Americans in the state Senate increased from seven to nine, and in the House from 18 to 22.
All are Democrats.
While the number of African-American Democrats increased, however, the number of Democrats decreased—from 71 Democrats prior to the 2012 elections to just 60 now, out of 170 legislative seats.
All 110 Republican legislators are white.
Statewide, Republican legislative candidates won about 52 percent of the votes cast to the Democrats' 48 percent. Yet because of the way the districts were drawn, this translated to the GOP winning more than 60 percent of the seats—thus, veto-proof margins—in both houses.
For Congress, the disfigurement was starker still. In 13 U.S. House elections, North Carolinians preferred the Democrats by 51–49 percent. Nonetheless, nine Republicans were elected—all white—because Democratic voters were packed into just four districts. Two of those districts are majority-black and elected African-American Democrats: G.K. Butterfield won District 1, which includes parts of the Triangle, and Mel Watt was elected in District 12, which includes areas stretching from Winston-Salem to Charlotte.
The lawyer's point was undeniable: The Republicans didn't draw these districts to help elect blacks. They drew them to elect Republicans—and squash the Democratic party to which black voters belong.
Senate District 21 in Hoke and Cumberland counties is an example of the way the Republicans packed as many black voters as possible into a single district in order to "bleach" the surrounding districts—pull the black Democratic voters out of them—and make them more Republican-friendly.
All of the little tentacles in the Cumberland portion of the district are for the purpose of grabbing black neighborhoods while avoiding white ones. For this purpose, the district splits 33 voting precincts (meaning some voters in the precinct are given a ballot that includes District 21 and some aren't—a source of confusion and delay for election officials, not to mention the voters themselves).
Prior to the Republican redistricting, Senate District 21 was 45 percent African-American and was represented by a black Democratic legislator. Only one precinct was split.
By packing it with additional black neighborhoods in Cumberland County, the Republicans boosted the African-American population to 52 percent of the district, in essence "wasting" thousands of Democratic votes in an already overwhelmingly Democratic district.
Senate 21 continues to be represented by a black Democrat, Sen. Robert Clark, who run unopposed for election in 2012.
Stripping the black voters out of the adjoining Senate District 19 helped elect Republican Sen. Wesley Meredith, who won with 54 percent of the vote.
Most of us in the South know about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We know why Congress enacted it. We've seen it impact the shape and racial composition of districts for more than a half century.
In the '80s, state lawmakers passed a redistricting plan that prompted the court case Thornburg v. Gingles. African-Americans argued that the plan created new districts where blacks couldn't elect representatives of their choosing. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that five of the six contested districts were discriminatory. Thus was born the "Gingles test," which measures whether racially gerrymandered districts are designed to lift blacks or oppress them.
In the '90s, the state's long, skinny, I-85 congressional district that ran from Charlotte to Durham was kicked up to the Supreme Court four times. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor agonized over it in her landmark Shaw v. Reno opinion. "Racial classifications of any sort pose the risk of lasting harm to our society," O'Connor wrote. "Racial gerrymandering, even for remedial purposes, may balkanize us."
But O'Connor also wrote, "This Court has never held that race-conscious state decision-making is impermissible in all circumstances." The issue, O'Connor said, is whether racial plans "are adopted with a discriminatory purpose and have the effect of diluting minority voting strength."
In the Shaw cases, the original I-85 district was struck down. A less racially balkanized district was approved and became our 12th congressional district, where Congressman Watt is entrenched.
Gerrymandering occurred when Democrats controlled the General Assembly prior to 2010, but it was intended to help blacks win office, not to destroy their political party. In counties with substantial black communities, such as Durham, Wake, Cumberland and Mecklenburg, the Democrats drew districts with 40-45 percent black voting populations, enough to elect black candidates without diluting the African-American vote.
When the Republicans took over, their majority-black districts—all with more than 50 percent black voters—were intended to elect black candidates and waste black votes.
And waste votes they did. That's why the NAACP is suing to throw out almost all of the black-majority districts as unwanted gifts from false friends.
Some of the Republicans' districts are almost comical in how they reach across county lines to attach additional, faraway black neighborhoods to an already black-majority district for the sole purpose of bleaching the adjoining districts—and making them Republican.
This not only violates the Voting Rights Act. It also violates state Supreme Court rulings in the last 10 years that districts must be compact and adhere to county lines, if possible.
If the three-judge panel rules against the Republican districts, as it should, the case will move to the state Supreme Court. There, a majority of the justices are Republicans—and two of the GOP justices supported compact districts and county lines when the Democrats were in charge. I wonder if they still will.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Constitutional crisis."