Tag Archives: North Carolina

A Bit Far Out…But…

Anyone who follows politics in today’s U.S. of A. is aware that gerrymandering is at the root of much of what ails us. There’s a reason Democrats have a chance to retain Senate control in the upcoming midterms: Senate races cannot be gerrymandered. (Okay, the fact that several GOP candidates are wacko has helped.) If voting majorities decided the composition of the House of Representatives, Democrats would easily hold that chamber–but political scientists tell us that barely a handful of House districts are currently competitive. They’ve been gerrymandered by both parties, but mostly by the GOP.

I’ve written (a lot) about the issues raised by gerrymandering, and I won’t repeat the litany here (although I encourage you to read my academic paper analyzing those issues–and weep…).

Thus far, our highly politicized U.S. Supreme Court has declined to get involved, piously declaring gerrymandering to be “a political question.” So a recent ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court wasn’t just a breath of fresh air–it was a light at the end of a dark tunnel. (Okay, I’ll quit the hokey metaphors, but I really, really loved this court’s conclusion!) Here’s the lede:

In a remarkable decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled on Friday that because the state legislature was unconstitutionally gerrymandered, Republican lawmakers may have lacked the power to approve amendments to the state constitution and put them before voters.

The decision, which the court’s 4-3 Democratic majority issued along party lines, stopped short of granting the plaintiffs’ requests to strike down two amendments passed by Republicans in 2018—one to require photo voter ID and another to cap any state income tax at 7%. The justices instead returned the case to the trial court for further findings, though its framing of the dispute indicates that there’s a strong likelihood the state courts will ultimately invalidate the amendments.

The court’s conclusion was buttressed by the fact that a large number of the state’s legislative districts had been struck down in 2017; the federal courts found they had been racially drawn to discriminate against Black voters.

However, Republicans who had been elected under the unconstitutional maps used their supermajorities to place their amendments on the ballot the following year, when they were ultimately approved by voters.

The heart of the argument was the legitimacy of actions taken by illegitimate lawmakers:

The plaintiffs, who are backed by the NAACP, made the unusual—but not unprecedented—argument that the GOP’s widespread illegal gerrymandering rendered the legislature a “usurper” that legally lacked the power to amend North Carolina’s foundational governing document because it had “lost its claim to popular sovereignty.” A lower court agreed in 2019 by striking down the two amendments, but a 2-1 Republican majority on the state Court of Appeals reversed that ruling along party lines in 2020, leading the plaintiffs to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The decision sending the case back to the trial court instructed that court to consider three questions: whether the amendments that were subject to the protest  would “immunize legislators … from democratic accountability,” whether they would “further the exclusion of a particular class of voters from the democratic process,” or whether those amendments were  intended to discriminate against the same type of voters who had been discriminated against by the illegal gerrymandering. If the trial court found the answer to any one of these three questions be “yes,” s/he would be “require[d]” to strike down the amendments.

I was particularly struck by the first question, addressing “democratic accountability.” 

In Indiana, it is a given that our statehouse is occupied by lawmakers lacking that “democratic accountability.” A number of academic studies have ranked the state among the five most gerrymandered in the country. It’s been a long time since I studied Indiana’s Constitution, but I do recall that Part Two, Section 1 declares that  “All elections shall be free and equal.” I also remember the (very strained) decision in Bush v. Gore to the effect that voting must pass an “equal protection” standard.

How equal are the votes of gerrymandered Hoosiers? How “democratically accountable” are the lawmakers who hold their positions thanks to the very denial of that equal protection?

In gerrymandered Indiana, we have plenty of evidence that rural ballots count more than urban ones. The citizens who reside in “blue” cities have less voice in state government than the citizens who live in the “red” exurbs and rural precincts of the state. How is this situation “free and equal”?

Calling on the Hoosier state’s creative lawyers…

I Think We’re Doomed

Every morning, I scan the headlines of the various news sites I consult, and it is a rare day when I don’t shake my head in disbelief over some crazy measure introduced in some state legislature. These bills are generally introduced by elected officials who clearly didn’t run touting their superior policy chops. (Don’t get me started on the intellects of those who voted for them…).

For the past decade or so, the vast majority of these brainiacs have been Republicans.

Allow me to share a recent example, picked up by the liberal site Daily Kos.

Lawmakers in North Carolina have introduced a bill to eliminate free charging stations for electric vehicles. Why? One of the sponsors tweeted his rationale:”Taxpayers should not be footing the bill for ‘free’ electric vehicle charging stations on state and local government property unless the same locations offer gasoline or diesel fuel at no charge. We need to do more to increase American energy production.”

I’d like to ask him whether taxpayers should be footing the bill for free streets and highways, since citizens using public transportation have to pay for that method of transport…

The bill–sponsored entirely by Republicans in the North Carolina legislature–is a mishmash of odd provisions. As the author of the article writes,

I’m having a hard time getting through HB 1049, the North Carolina House Bill that basically demonizes electric vehicle charging stations because consumers aren’t getting free fossil fuels alongside them. The bill was sponsored entirely by Republicans: Reps. Keith Kidwell, Mark Brody, George Cleveland, Donnie Loftis, and Ben Moss. It requires businesses to disclose the percentage of what they’re charging customers that is “the result of the business providing electric vehicle (EV) charging stations at no charge.” Businesses more than likely would be handing customers receipts showing 0%, given the Energy Department’s estimate that it costs just $6 for an EV with a 200-mile range and a 54kWh battery that is fully depleted to be completely recharged.

The bill also requires publicly-funded EV charging stations on state-leased or state-owned property to come with free gas and diesel pumps. The same goes for county and city property. And if anyone in those groups with EV charging stations on their property can’t adhere to those terms, the bill requires the Department of Transit to develop a system to disperse $50,000 for the sole purpose of using that money to dismantle EV charging stations. Make it make sense.

Making that measure “make sense” is probably beyond the capacity of rational folks.

The electricity provided by charging stations is produced using fossil fuels, so they aren’t a panacea for the environment–but their availability encourages people to purchase electric vehicles. You’d think getting internal combustion engines off the roads–an environmental plus– is something government should encourage.

That said, even climate change deniers would have trouble making sense of this bill, and it has come in for its share of snark. As Ezra Dyer wrote in Car and Driver, 

Politicians have to run on some kind of platform, and Ben Moss—my incoming state House representative here in North Carolina’s District 52—decided that his animating principle is Being Mad at Electricity. To prove his animosity toward this invisible menace, he’s sponsoring House Bill 1049, which would allocate $50,000 to destroy free public car chargers. It contains some other enlightened ideas, but that’s the main theme: We’ve simply got to do something about these free public chargers, even if it costs us $50,000! Those things cost tens of cents per hour, when they’re being used.

Of course, there’s a caveat here. Moss isn’t saying that free public Level 2 chargers—of which there are three in my town, with plans in the works to convert to paid kiosks—definitely need to get crushed by a monster truck. That rule only comes into play if a town refuses to build free gas and diesel pumps next to the EV chargers. So anyway, warm up El Toro Loco, we’re smashin’ some car zappers!

The last time I checked, this wacko bill had passed first reading, so I assume the North Carolina legislature has a GOP majority.

Measures like these are what happens when people running for office are utterly unserious (not to mention unknowledgeable) about governing. I don’t know what “floats the boat” of the sponsors of this particular bill, but far too many aspirants to public office are either culture warriors uninterested in the mundane nuts and bolts of governing, or empty suits wanting to “be someone.” And these days, in the GOP, “being someone” requires peddling beliefs like the Big Lie, QAnon, Christian Nationalism and a grab-bag of other irrational and illogical “alternative facts.” it sure doesn’t require expertise or common sense.

I think America is screwed…..

 

 

Let Me Count The Ways…

There are all sorts of tactics that have been employed over the years to suppress the votes of “the other guys.” Recently, those efforts have mostly come from the GOP, but historically, both parties have engaged in them–just as both parties do (and continue to) gerrymander when they control a state legislative chamber.

I’ve recently noted that the efforts to cast doubt on voting by mail are partly motivated by the fact that vote-by-mail defeats many of the time-honored ways to suppress minority votes–and provides a paper trail.

One of the least commented methods of suppressing minority votes–and one of the most effective–is felon disenfranchisement. It is widespread–a number of states forbid ex-offenders from casting ballots–and superficially, at least, it’s race-neutral. For citizens unaware of the over-incarceration of African-Americans during America’s drug war (laid out in indisputable terms by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow), felon disenfranchisement is simply a lingering, perhaps overly-harsh “law and order” punishment of those who have broken the law.

Two recent court decisions–one honorable, one definitely not–make the implicit, explicit.

In North Carolina, a court struck down an effort to keep ex-offenders from casting ballots, holding that the state could not disenfranchise citizens who owe fines, fees, and other debts from a felony conviction. As the linked article about the ruling noted,

Many felon disenfranchisement rules, including North Carolina’s, are rooted in overt white supremacy. After Reconstruction, racist Democrats in the state sought to revoke Black citizens’ suffrage. They accomplished this task, in part, through vague criminal laws that stripped convicted felons of their civil rights—then enforced these laws disproportionately against Black people. North Carolina’s current statute is rooted in an 1877 law spearheaded by a representative who later presided over the lynching of three Black men. At the time, Democrats argued that felon disenfranchisement was necessary to stop “the honest vote of a white man” from being “off-set by the vote of some negro.” Its purpose, alongside other Jim Crow measures like the literacy test, was to “secure white supremacy.”

The law continues to work as intended, as documented in an expert report by University of North Carolina professor Frank R. Baumgartner. Today, Black North Carolinians represent 22 percent of adults and 42 percent of the disenfranchised. Black residents are denied the right to vote at three times the rate of white residents in 44 counties. The state’s disenfranchisement regime targets two groups of people: those on probation or parole, and those who’ve completed their full sentence but still owe court debt. Notably, judges may extend an individual’s probation or send them back to prison because they haven’t paid off these fines and fees.

Meanwhile, in Florida, immediately after a majority of citizens voted to overturn that state’s felony disenfranchisement law, Republican legislators passed a measure that limited that disenfranchisement to those who had managed to pay off all court costs. A federal judge ruled that the restriction was an unconstitutional poll tax. But last Friday, an appeals court narrowly overturned that decision.

The court’s 6-4 ruling dealt a significant blow to civil rights groups that have fought to expand the voter rolls with hundreds of thousands of people who had completed prison time and parole for felony convictions. It also undermined what had seemed like a major referendum victory in 2018 and served as another reminder of the decisive role that a slew of legal cases could play before the presidential election.

There are lessons here, for those of us willing to learn them.

First, racial animus dies hard, and it lurks in places we seldom think to look. Second, the competence and integrity of the men and women who occupy the nation’s bench–who act as custodians of the Constitution and defenders of the Rule of Law–is critically important.

And third, the future of both that bench and this nation depends upon massive turnout for “blue no matter who” on (or preferably before) November 3d.

 

North Carolina’s Genuine Conservatives

I’m always hesitant to post observations requiring the use of terms like “liberal” “conservative” “progressive” or especially “socialist” and “fascist,” because over the past years, any conceptual clarity those labels may once have had has disappeared. These days they tend to be used as epithets, not efforts to communicate.

For example, I used to consider myself a conservative. I wanted to conserve the values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I was (and remain) convinced that fiscal prudence means that–absent emergencies–programs should be paid for with current tax dollars remitted equitably by rich and poor, and not “borrow and spend.” I believe in limited government–and I believe that “limited government” means government limited to the performance of genuinely governmental tasks, like national defense or paving streets, and not the exercise of authority over my uterus or my soul.

Thanks to the GOP’s extreme move rightward, those are now generally considered to be liberal or progressive positions.

The dramatic change in the Republican Party, culminating in its current defense of a monumentally unfit, corrupt President, has created a deep disconnect between old-timers and the current cult. That disconnect recently prompted three North Carolina County Commissionerrs to leave the GOP, while laying claim to the term “conservative.”

To be conservative is to honor and preserve the fundamental institutions, processes, structures and rule of law, ….

To be conservative is to be financially prudent while also investing in common ground works that support individual success for all citizens. To be conservative is to be welcoming and inclusive, ….

To be conservative is to have a strong moral compass and the willingness to challenge wrong regardless of its source.

We believe all of these are not merely conservative principles but American principles.

They continue…

Next, we believe elected officials have a special duty to conduct themselves beyond reproach and make genuine efforts to represent all their constituents.

Elected officials must strive to conduct all public and private actions with honor and integrity.

Elected officials must value objective truth and, in turn, be truthful in their own statements and interactions.

And elected officials must continually work to hear the voices of all while making hard decisions on behalf of their fellow citizens

“Finally, and importantly, we believe local government should not be partisan in nature.

Good ideas come from across the spectrum of political thought.

Our focus is local, our objective is problem-solving for Transylvania County and our experience is thatpartisanship is an obstacle to effective local governance.

Governing is done best when done closest, and close governing is done best when removed from partisan encumbrances.”

These local officials–all of whom have lengthy histories in Republican politics– have put their emphasis on governing, not politicking. It’s an emphasis that has been absent from the national GOP for some time–a recognition that political activity is supposed to be directed toward winning an opportunity to serve.

When asked whether their dissatisfaction was local or national, one of the Commissioners responded

Leaders at every level should also operate with strict standards of honesty and integrity, both for themselves and others they work with. And leaders at every level should work to represent all citizens, regardless of the issue. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to suggest that Republican leadership at the highest levels are no longer consistently maintaining those principles.

Let’s hope these public servants–and I am happy to use that term–are harbingers of many defections from whatever it is the GOP has become. One thing for sure: today’s Republican Party isn’t conservative–at least, not as that term used to be understood.

It’s White Nationalist, and bent on dominance, not governance.

 

“Illegally Constituted” Legislatures..

Every once in a while, I read a news release that makes me go “wow!” I read this one twice–and I love it.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins struck downtwo of the state constitutional amendments passed by North Carolina voters last November. But the reason he gave for his decision was remarkable: in his view, the state legislature is so gerrymandered as to be an illegitimate body that doesn’t really represent voters, and thus had no authority to alter the state constitution.

“An illegally constituted General Assembly does not represent the people of North Carolina and is therefore not empowered to pass legislation that would amend the state’s constitution,” wrote Collins.

The amendments that were struck down by this ruling were an amendment requirement that voters present a strict photo ID at the polls, which is almost identical to a previous law a federal court said targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision,” and an amendment capping the state income tax rate at 7 percent, which was a huge gift to the wealthy that jeopardized the state budget.

North Carolina voters had approved four constitutional amendments in a referendum, and the Judge let two of them go into effect. He found that the legislature’s description of the two amendments he struck down had been misleading. (A court had previously invalidated  an earlier draft of language explaining the amendments.)

North Carolina has been called the most aggressively gerrymandered state in the country, and a case challenging its current legislative and congressional districts will be heard by the Supreme Court during its next term.

The Judge’s decision will, of course, be appealed, and there is no telling what the final outcome will be, but the decision ranks right up there with the pronouncement by a clear-eyed child in the well-known story: “the Emperor has no clothes.”

A few days ago, I cited David Leonhardt’s column in the New York Times, in which he catalogued state legislative actions contrary to the clear desires of the relevant voters, and I compared those examples to the repeated refusal of Indiana’s lawmakers to act on the demonstrable wishes of Hoosier voters that they pass a hate crimes bill.

Thanks to the prevalence of gerrymandering (and assorted other political “dirty tricks” including vote suppression), America currently has several state legislatures that meet Judge Collins’ criteria for illegitimacy.

When the “clothing” of rhetoric is stripped away, the fact that we no longer have a genuine democracy is the “naked” truth.

Three cheers for Judge Collins and his willingness to call it like it is.