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North Carolina Judges’ Rulings Are a ‘Gut Punch’ to Black Residents

But advocates vow to fight back after the state Supreme Court throws out rulings that found a voter ID law and a partisan gerrymander to be unconstitutional.

Marcus Bass, executive director of Advance Carolina, speaks at a press conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, in March in advance of arguments before the state Supreme Court on whether earlier court rulings that declared partisan gerrymandering violated the state constitution should be reversed or withdrawn. The court last month overturned the previous rulings. (Gary D. Robertson/Associated Press)

Voting rights advocates are undaunted by the blows that the Republican-controlled North Carolina Supreme Court has struck against access to the ballot box and fair representation — and that will disproportionately disadvantage Black people in the state.

“This is where SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] was founded. This is where Ella Baker grew up,” said Cheryl Carter, the co-executive director of the civic engagement nonprofit Democracy North Carolina. “It’s a gut punch that we have to fight the same struggles again and again, but when we think about our foundations and our roots, we really have no choice but to push back.”

In April, North Carolina’s high court, which until January leaned Democratic, threw out rulings that it had handed down only last year against a strict 2018 voter ID law and an extreme partisan gerrymander that would give Republicans an aggressive advantage over their rivals both locally and in the narrowly divided U.S. House. The Republican-friendly reversals are likely to have an especially large impact on Black residents, who tend to be the victims of efforts to make voting more difficult — a U.S. appeals court said in 2016 that a North Carolina voter ID law targeted Black Americans “with almost surgical precision” — and who register as Democrats far more than other groups (in the South, race and party are essentially proxies for each other).

Organizers said that they’ll continue spearheading voter registration campaigns and pressuring political leaders to embrace legislation that would allow residents to determine how electoral districts are drawn.

Carter told Capital B that effective mobilizing requires strong face-to-face relationships, so in the weeks and months ahead, she and her team will focus on going even more local — that is, going into communities, especially Black communities, and meeting people where they are to discuss voter suppression and fair elections.

The court’s moves arrive at a moment filled with battles over redistricting. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide if Alabama’s newly drawn map violates Section 2 of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits any rule that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right” to “vote on account of race.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the North Carolina Supreme Court’s Republican majority characterized the decisions as a kind of throwback to an era that was supposedly less divided by partisan politics.

“Courts are not designed to be thrust into the midst of various political disputes,” Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote in the redistricting opinion, which was joined by the four other Republican justices. “Choosing political winners and losers creates a perception that courts are another political branch.”

The two Democratic members of the court lambasted the majority’s framing, emphasizing that “the public will not be gaslighted.”

“Let there be no illusions about what motivates the majority’s decision to rewrite this Court’s precedent,” Justice Anita Earls wrote in a blistering dissent, which was joined by Justice Michael Morgan. “Today’s result was preordained on 8 November 2022, when two new members of this Court were elected to establish this Court’s conservative majority. … Today, the Court shows that its own will is more powerful than the voices of North Carolina’s voters.”

‘We have to mobilize people’

Advocates including Carter echoed these sentiments, and added that Republicans’ latest political machinations only underscored the importance of grassroots work.

“We have to mobilize people so that their voices can be heard, so that they can talk with legislators about what their precincts should look like and what their polling locations and hours should be,” she said. “We also plan on going to the State Board of Elections, since it has control over some aspects of these issues. In 2013, when we had what we called the ‘monster law,’ we asked the State Board of Elections to hold public hearings, and through that, the General Assembly changed some of the rules it had in place.”

In short, Democracy North Carolina is seeking out ways to empower people and make sure that they have the necessary identification to cast their ballots.

Tyler Daye, the policy and civic engagement manager at Common Cause North Carolina, a government watchdog group, said that the court’s redistricting decision, which will allow the Republican-led legislature to redraw congressional boundaries as early as this summer and which the governor can’t veto, is “horrible” for residents. This is especially true for the state’s Black communities, who’ve been targeted by Republican gerrymanders in the past.

“I don’t think that it takes a legal scholar to recognize that if you’re drawing your own districts, there’s a huge conflict of interest. I’d argue that you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger conflict of interest in our government than state legislators drawing their own districts,” he noted. “When the legislature draws these districts, it’s not concerned about keeping communities together. It’s not concerned about the citizens of the state. It’s concerned about drawing safe districts so that lawmakers can maintain their seats.”

Daye said that, in response to the rulings, Common Cause North Carolina is ramping up its support for SB 642 and HB 9, two independent redistricting commission bills. This body, he continued, would draw districts and would have an equal number of Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated members who aren’t legislators. And the commission would have to follow strict criteria: It wouldn’t be allowed to draw maps that are partisan gerrymanders, and it’d have to protect communities of interest, including racial and ethnic minorities.

The various clashes over redistricting flashing and flaring across the country — from partisan gerrymandering challenges in Ohio and Florida to racially discriminatory maps in Alabama and South Carolina — illustrate that the process is a key ingredient of U.S. democracy.

“Whatever issue you care about, redistricting is your issue. It doesn’t matter if you’re passionate about education or abortion or climate change — redistricting is your issue,” Daye said. “That’s because people must have legislators who are accountable, who are actually concerned about losing their positions if they don’t listen to the will of the people.”

He was referring to the fact that lawmakers sometimes pass legislation that doesn’t necessarily reflect what the public wants. Per observers, gerrymanders are part of the minority rule doom loop, “by which predominantly white conservatives gain more and more power, even as they represent fewer Americans.”

Carter explained that present-day political struggles make her think about the 1960s, when the civil rights movement paved the way for true democracy for the first time in the country’s history. More to the point, she stressed that she finds inspiration in these past fights.

“In the end,” she said, “justice and liberation will be won for the people.”