Why North Carolina’s Politics Matters
Democracy is not an absolute concept, but rather exists on a continuum between itself and autocracy. Recently, North Carolina took a large step in the wrong direction. Will other states follow suit? And what will be the impact on democracy in America?
The State of Play
Much has been made of the last-minute legislative session stripping incoming North Carolina governor, Roy Cooper, a democrat, of much of his power. For example, “Republicans reduced the number of public employees the governor could appoint—from 1,500 to 425—prevented the governor from appointing members to boards of state universities, and required the governor’s cabinet picks to be confirmed by the legislature. ” The most concerning of these measures would violate the mandate for free and fair elections as “Cooper will no longer get to appoint a majority of members to the state board of elections or 100 county boards of elections, and the state board will be chaired by a Republican in all even-numbered years—i.e., any time there’s a major congressional, statewide, or presidential election. ”
The highly partisan nature of North Carolina’s electoral commission is problematic in itself. Permanent Republican control over the state board of elections would allow for the continuation, and perhaps expansion, of electoral rules that heavily favor Republican candidates over their Democratic counterparts. Furthermore, these new laws were passed against the will of the majority of North Carolinians who elected Cooper as Governor.
The context in which the laws were pass is just as important. In the summer of 2016, the Federal Court declared that two of North Carolina’s thirteen Congressional districts and 28 of the state’s 170 General Assembly districts were unconstitutional due to racial gerrymandering. These yet to be redrawn districts will hold special elections in the fall of 2017. The unconstitutional nature of these districts, however, questions the legitimacy of the 2016 winners. To wit, “the legislature that stripped power from the next Democratic governor was elected by illegal means.”
Generally, the decline of democratic rights increases civil unrest as the legal means of expressing dissent become more limited and less effective. Thus, the riots in Charlotte and other U.S. communities, while triggered by police shootings, cannot be delinked from voter suppression and other state authorized forms of racial discrimination. In the case of North Carolina, there is an abundance of evidence of intentional voter suppression of African-Americans. For example, several Supreme Court rulings have found that the laws resulting from North Carolina’s Voting Act of 2013 “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Even after this law was declared unconstitutional, GOP-controlled county election boards limited early-voting hours and polling locations in districts that had a high proportion of African-American voters. The North Carolina GOP even bragged publicly in a campaign email the day before the election that “African American Early Voting is down 8.5% from this time in 2012. Caucasian voters early voting is up 22.5% from this time in 2012.” (Note: this email can be found with other media releases at http://nc.gop/press-releases/.) Naturally, government sanctioned discrimination leads to resentment towards state authority. Therefore, we should not be surprised that these feelings are passed on to the police, creating a situation that is more dangerous for everyone.
All Is Fair In Love And Politics?
In addition to the presidency, Republicans now hold the majority in the House and Senate, as well as, the majority of state governments. One might take from this that there is a national mandate for the Republican Party’s ideas. In actuality, these positions reflect an overall minority of the voting population. Although Republicans have become masters of the game, they are increasingly ruling without the popular vote. Consider that the two most recent Republican presidents were both elected without winning the popular vote. In North Carolina’s 2014 midterm elections, “Democrats in North Carolina secured only 3 out of 13 seats (23 percent of NC’s congressional delegation) even though Democratic candidates in that state won about 44 percent of the vote .” While Republicans have developed a superior strategy for winning elections, the discrepancy between the proportion of the vote that these representatives receive to the overall votes cast for the opposition risks further destabilizing civil society.
Room For Optimism?
Fortunately, there is a big difference between state governments and the national government. The courts may strike down the provisions allowing Republicans to control the electoral commission. But as seen with the recent voting rights act, the delay between such rulings and government action may be long enough to create lasting damage. If this law is not quickly reversed or struck down, the risk is that other states will follow suit. (In fact, Texas has declared that it will emulate North Carolina with its own bathroom bill which restricts access for transgendered individuals.) Without federal action, what happens in North Carolina may very well portend the weakening of democracy for all Americans.