North Carolina's confusing primary: why so many votes won't count

The centuries-old partisan process of gerrymandering is beginning to get a stern look in courts. North Carolina is ground zero.

Kaitlin McKeown/The Herald-Sun via AP
Eliza Bordley looks out the window while waiting to vote at the Durham School of the Arts in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Voters in North Carolina, as well as Illinois, Florida, Ohio, and Missouri are casting their ballots in primary elections Tuesday.

North Carolinians can vote however they want in their Super Tuesday primary election, but one thing’s fairly sure: Many of those Tar Heel votes aren’t going to count.

Last month, a federal three-judge panel found that Republicans drew two of the state’s congressional districts illegally, packing more black voters into districts where they already had a plurality, thus boosting Republican odds by “bleaching” surrounding districts.

The result is, pretty much everyone agrees, a mess. The congressional candidates are still on the ballot along with the presidential and local candidates. But all the congressional votes will not be counted, and a new congressional primary with the new districts is scheduled for June 7.

North Carolina is not alone in its troubles. A flurry of recent federal court cases has raised questions about whether states have drawn their districts fairly. The 204-year-old gerrymander, long a symbol of crass political partisanship, is under mounting scrutiny.

While redistricting doesn’t top most voters’ list of priorities, the effects of gerrymandering are starting to seep into voter frustrations, experts say. Outsiders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have railed against a system they say is “rigged.” And in a nation where 405 of the 435 House seats are considered safe for the incumbent, gerrymandering is perhaps the most blatant example of a rising feeling of voter impotence.

“Americans may not look at redistricting and say, ‘This is really what’s wrong with our democracy,’ but they will say, ‘I think the system is rigged,’ and they’re right – the system is rigged because of partisan gerrymandering,” says Gerry Hebert, a former acting chief of the Voting Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. “Many voters don’t realize that the election has already been decided” before they cast their vote.

In North Carolina, creative mapping has taken a state where President Obama barely lost to Mitt Romney in 2012 – and beat John McCain in 2008 – and given Republicans 10 of 13 congressional districts in the state.

Republicans deny that they overconcentrated black voters in a few districts to create whiter, more Republican districts. They say they were simply moving Democrats around, many of whom happened to be black.

Similar allegations are playing out in Virginia and Maryland.

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear a Virginia case that alleges Republicans engaged in improper racial gerrymandering by “bleaching” districts in order to shore up Republican dominance.

In Maryland, where Democrats hold seven of eight congressional seats, Democrats have created a gerrymandered district that one federal judge called “a broken-winged pterodactyl lying prostrate across the center of the state.” The Maryland challenge alleges that the legislature has violated First Amendment rights by effectively silencing the voices of opposing voters in gerrymandered districts.

“A lot of these cases are mixtures of partisan gerrymandering and racial gerrymandering,” says Mr. Hebert. “The Supreme Court has caught onto this, at long last, that people are using race improperly to achieve partisan victories. These cases used to be dismissed right out of the box, which is no longer the case.”

In limited cases, gerrymandering has been seen as promoting a positive good. Historically, some Southern districts have been gerrymandered to ensure African-Americans the ability to elect their own representatives.

“Partisan gerrymandering as a remedy is really important if you’re going to try to prevent racial gerrymandering, especially in the South,” says Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's democracy program and a voting rights expert. “Otherwise, the defense will always be that it’s politics and not race, but it’s hard to untangle politics and race in the South.”

Yet Americans seem tired of race-based politics: 3 of 4 voters say politicians are raising racial issues only to get elected, according to a Rasmussen Reports survey conducted last week.

One solution has taken shape in California and Arizona, where nonpartisan redistricting committees, not the legislatures, draw districts. Last year, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of Arizona’s committee, though it is now looking at the whether the commission’s maps are constitutional. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) has called for such a nonpartisan commission, though bills have gone nowhere.

A February Public Policy Polling survey found that 59 percent of North Carolina voters wanted a nonpartisan commission to take redistricting from the legislature. Nine percent opposed such a move.

“There’s a lot of cynicism in the country because of the way we draw maps, where people feel their vote doesn’t count, and that the results are predetermined,” says Mr. Li. The North Carolina situation, in particular, “is a mess.”

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