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Fairer districts will restore the people’s voice

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While North Carolina’s attention last week was focused on Hurricane Dorian, the state’s judicial system blew away the partisan gerrymandered maps drawn by Republican lawmakers in 2017 in a clear victory for fair elections in state politics.

A panel of three Superior Court judges on Sept. 3 unanimously ruled that the maps drawn by the legislature for state House and Senate districts were unconstitutional and ordered that new maps be drawn within two weeks under strict guidelines. GOP leaders said they would not appeal the ruling and lawmakers began working on the new maps Monday.

The court’s guidelines take political considerations out of any new maps, require more transparency in the process, require any outside experts to be approved in advance by the judges and give the courts final approval over the new maps. Redrawn maps will take effect in the 2020 legislative elections.

This is a tremendous victory for good government in North Carolina, at least the start of a rollback of the system rigged by Republican lawmakers when they took power in 2010. The first maps the legislature approved on party lines in 2011 carved the districts up by race and were ruled unconstitutional. The 2017 maps openly, defiantly drew districts to benefit Republicans over Democrats with the same partisan cynicism lawmakers drew the state’s congressional districts.

The result of the gerrymandered maps was that Republicans unfairly awarded themselves a huge advantage in legislative seats that up until last year gave them a veto-proof majority. They compounded the unfairness by repeated efforts to suppress Democratic voters through oppressive voter ID laws and manipulation of election guidelines. The special election in the 9th Congressional District was necessary because of GOP fraud over absentee ballots.

Republican leaders Phil Berger in the Senate and Tim Moore in the House, who have defended their maps bitterly in court, decided not to appeal most likely because the GOP lost control over the state Supreme Court last year. And Rep. David Lewis, chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, is totally unrepentant over his political bias.

This means that open government advocates who won the lawsuit and Democratic legislators will need to make full use of the court-mandated transparency to ensure the new maps are truly honest and not just more subtly rigged. The ultimate guarantee will be up to the judges who must approve them.

The outlook for more fair elections, and a more balanced legislature politically, is looking much better after last week’s decision. North Carolinians also have new hope that the congressional districts, also heavily gerrymandered, will be corrected after 2020.

Federal elections will still be rigged against Democrats in 2020 because the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling against the gerrymandered maps, allowing them to remain in effect through the next election. Even so, the tides are against Republicans even on the federal level.

One reason, though less likely, is that a state lawsuit could be mounted against the federal maps on the same basis as the legislative ones. The Supreme Court didn’t endorse the current maps but simply ruled that they didn’t come under the jurisdiction of federal courts. Justices made clear that one of the possible remedies was in state courts, and the state Supreme Court could conceivably be open to rejecting the districts as unconstitutional if a case comes its way. The biggest obstacle is probably the lack of time to mount a new challenge.

A bigger reason for optimism, though, is that new and fair legislative maps for next year’s race would give voters a chance to restore or change the political balance in the General Assembly. Legislators elected next year under the redrawn maps will be the ones charged with drawing entirely new state and federal election maps after the Census in the normal redistricting cycle in 2021. A better legislature will yield better maps.

It’s important to stress, however, that the goal of new election maps now and later is not to elect more Democrats and fewer Republicans; it is to restore the choice to voters so that the makeup of the legislature and Congress fairly reflects the will of the people. A state roughly balanced between Democrats and Republicans should see that balance reflected in election results, not tilted through manipulation.

North Carolinians since 2010 have seen the governmental abuses that resulted from a Republican supermajority intent on its own agenda at any price. Government became more responsive when Democrats regained more seats last year, putting teeth into the governor’s vetoes.

But the Democrats, over their years in power, engaged in gerrymandering of their own, though not as extensive, and it wasn’t right then, either — and would be just as wrong in 2021. The best system is still likely to be a nonpartisan commission drafting maps with no political or racial considerations, keeping communities and counties together as much as possible. That’s the kind of districts the state constitution intended.

Last week’s court decision against partisan gerrymandering was a huge victory for good government, but there’s still a ways to go before we can start celebrating.

Ken Ripley, a resident of Spring Hope, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.