Democracy Dies in Darkness

Wonkblog | Analysis

North Carolina Republicans’ long track record of unconstitutional laws

August 28, 2018 at 1:55 PM

Protesters stand in front of the Supreme Court while the justices hear arguments on gerrymandering Oct. 3, 2017, in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

This week a panel of federal judges ruled that North Carolina Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered the state’s congressional districts to disadvantage Democrats, the latest move in a legal saga going back to 2011.

Gerrymandering is the process by which legislators draw voting districts that give their own party a political advantage. The North Carolina map, for instance, allowed Republicans to take 10 out of the state’s 13 House seats in 2016 despite winning 53 percent of the statewide popular vote.

The latest North Carolina legal decision lays out precisely why this is a problem: When maps are gerrymandered, the government no longer reflects the will of the voters. “We continue to lament that North Carolina voters now have been deprived of a constitutional congressional districting plan — and, therefore, constitutional representation in Congress — for six years and three election cycles,” wrote Judge James A. Wynn Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in his decision.

Wynn’s decision is also sharply critical of the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly, which has been unapologetic about its desire to tilt the playing field in favor of Republicans. “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” as state Rep. David Lewis (R) put it in 2016.

The ruling questions the General Assembly’s “commitment to enacting constitutionally compliant, non-discriminatory election laws,” given the stunning number of election-related bills passed by the legislative body that have subsequently been struck down as unconstitutional.

In a lengthy footnote, Wynn’s decision lists the recent rulings overturning the General Assembly’s election-related legislation. Taken together, they illustrate what happens when a legislature protected by a gerrymander thinks it can act with impunity. We’ve listed those rulings below.

In Wynn’s view, looming behind all of these overturned laws is the original gerrymander, passed by Republicans in 2011, that virtually guaranteed their hold on power for the coming decade. “As James Madison warned,” Wynn writes, “a legislature that is itself insulated by virtue of an invidious gerrymander can enact additional legislation to restrict voting rights and thereby further cement its unjustified control of the organs of both state and federal government.”

Christopher Ingraham writes about all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

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