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‘Powerful tool’: Local officials react to gerrymandering ruling

SALISBURY — When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the drawing of congressional districts is beyond its authority, it served as a win for Republicans, who drew the districts, and a disappointment for Democrats.

In North Carolina, the General Assembly is responsible for drawing district lines for legislative and congressional elections. And while the state is no stranger to court battles over the results of district lines, the latest challenge was specifically focused on partisan gerrymandering, lines drawn with the intent to give one political party an advantage.

A court ruling in 2016 had led to those maps when it said that the previous map had racially gerrymandered districts. The racial gerrymanders included the 12th Congressional District, which snaked from the Piedmont Triad through Rowan County and to Charlotte.

While Rowan County had previously been split into three congressional districts, maps drawn after the 2016 court ruling put the county into two districts — the 13th, currently represented by Rep. Ted Budd, and the 8th, represented by Rep. Richard Hudson.

In the case concerning those maps, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in last week’s opinion that voters and elected officials should be the arbiters of what is a political dispute. Still, Roberts said, the decision does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering and acknowledged that North Carolina’s maps are “highly partisan.”

Rowan County Democratic Party Chairman Geoffrey Hoy said the court’s decision was an extreme disappointment for Democrats in the county and state.

“We all know gerrymandering is not good for democracy,” Hoy said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, said he thinks the Supreme Court made the right decision and that the ruling protects the state’s “sovereign rights.” However, Warren, vice chairman of the state House Elections and Ethics Law Committee, said he introduced a bill in April called the N.C. FAIR State and Congressional Districts Act. That measure, which would establish an independent redistricting committee, hasn’t made significant progress.

The General Assembly, Warren said, draws congressional maps and, because legislators are elected by the people, there’s proper representation in the process.

Party votes

For years, North Carolina has been considered a “purple state” — a combination of red for Republican and blue for Democrat. In 2016, most N.C. voters chose a Republican for president, Donald Trump, while electing a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper. Warren said that split was because Cooper’s competition, one-term Gov. Pat McCrory, made unfavorable decisions such as putting toll roads on Interstate 77. Warren said many voted for Cooper simply because he was not McCrory. He also pointed out the race was close — Cooper received 49% of the vote compared to McCrory’s 48.8%.

Proof of gerrymandered districts for Hoy is the vote count in the 2016 and 2018 congressional races, years under the district map that was the subject of last week’s decision. Three of 13 districts in the state elected Democrats, but the total number of votes cast for one party or another was much closer than that.

In the 2016 congressional elections statewide, 2.45 million votes were cast for a Republican candidate and 2.14 million were cast for a Democratic candidate. 

In 2018, 1.63 million votes were cast for a Democratic candidate and 1.52 million votes were for a Republican. That election produced nine Republican and three Democrat members of Congress. While Republican Mark Harris had more votes after election day in the 9th District, allegations of fraud prompted a new election.

Part of the norm

State Sen. Carl Ford, R-33, says partisan-drawn districts are a part of the norm. And Warren says Democrats previously had redistricting power and drew the congressional districts in their favor.

“They understand it is a powerful tool and it can have political influence,” Warren said.

While Hoy admitted Democrats have gerrymandered in the past, he said it’s not a pattern that Republicans should follow.

Rep. Budd was first elected in 2016 after a redrawing of congressional maps. He beat a glut of Republican candidates for his party’s nomination and went on to win the general election with 56% of the vote.

In running in the newly drawn district, which had previously been located in the Raleigh-Durham area, Budd said he felt a “real kindred spirit” with the 13th. It was his first run for elected office.

“The district, to me, felt like home because it had the urban side of Greensboro where I’m very comfortable, but it also had rural aspects to it,” Budd said. “It had industry that I’m comfortable with, everything from racing to manufacturing to transportation to aviation. Those are all industries that I’m comfortable with.”

Commenting on the court ruling during a visit to Salisbury on Friday, Budd said it demonstrates the importance of state elections.

“I really hope that it highlights to everyone on both sides of the aisle how important local elections are, because it’s the state’s representatives that need to be determining where these lines are,” Budd said.

Not over yet

Challenges to the congressional district map are not over yet. Hoy said the court’s decision doesn’t mean that Democrats are going to “pack up their things and go home.” It means they will redouble their efforts.

“We will continue to work hard to elect Democrats,” Hoy said.

And Democrats can challenge the maps in state courts.

North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin released a statement after the court’s decision Thursday saying Democrats are still ready to fight.

“For nearly a decade, Republicans have silenced the voices of North Carolinians using racial and partisan gerrymanders to pass extreme legislation and hold on to power at all costs,” Goodwin said.

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