Other voices: For fair elections, bring in the refs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Look. We just want elections to be fair. We want voters to vote and we want the candidates who get the most votes to win their offices and get to work for the people.

We suspect that most North Carolinians want that, too.

Is that too much to ask?

It is when you’re a Republican legislator who is more concerned about party and power than representing the will of the people in your state. Because of a few who are determined to fight their cause — gerrymandered maps that retain an unjust electoral advantage — to the bitter end, the U.S. Supreme Court will now have to weigh in.

Unfortunately, that still leaves our state at risk.

To recap briefly: After the N.C. Supreme Court   declared the Republican-led legislature’s maps for U.S. House and General Assembly districts to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered — evidence presented at a trial showed the congressional district map was “a result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting” — Republicans were ordered to redraw and resubmit them, which they did.

Though they left much to be desired, the court still accepted the General Assembly map. But the court rejected the congressional district map, which it then redrew, relying on the recommendations of special, nonpartisan masters whose only job was to be fair.

The redrawn congressional district map reduced the expected Republican advantage from 10 out of 14 seats to a more likely seven out of 14 — with six likely to be won by Democrats and the 14th a toss-up.

That seems about right for a state in which Democrats, Republicans and independent voters are roughly equal in number. Of course, partisans on both the left and the right still groused; either the redrawn map went too far or didn’t go far enough. Nevertheless, the court had ruled, which finally cleared the way for potential candidates to file — or not file — and begin making their cases to the voters. All seemed settled until   Republican legislators filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the court to restore its previous gerrymandered congressional district map. So even while candidates file for their parties’ primaries in May, they do so knowing that the table could be upturned once again.

These Republican legislators, incidentally, make no pretense that their map was fair — we’re far beyond that. They say, rather, that the state constitution allows them to be unfair. Their stated objection in their filing to the Supreme Court is to the process — to their maps going from their greedy hands to the court’s. “If a redistricting process more violative of the U.S. Constitution exists, it is hard to imagine it,” they wrote in their appeal to the Supreme Court.

On its surface, their appeal seems too desperate to even try. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that state courts should be the presiding authority when it comes to partisan gerrymandering cases and federal courts should stay out.

North Carolina legislators are essentially asking the court to override its own decision.

“We are confident this specious attempt to undermine our judiciary will be rejected,” Allison Riggs, a lawyer representing Common Cause in the litigation, said in a news release. Unfortunately, the current U.S. Supreme Court, with three Trump appointees, has also exhibited a lack of what we might call “judicial restraint.” It has overruled long-standing constitutional precedent in several prominent cases. And early in February, the court overruled an Alabama state court that tried to block a gerrymandered map that reduces Black representation. We can’t help feeling a little trepidation for a court that is so unpredictable and inconsistent.

We hope we’re wrong even to consider the possibility of an unjust ruling.

All of this could be avoided if our state utilized the type of independent redistricting commissions that other states use. No system is perfect, but surely putting these decisions in nonpartisan hands would be a vast improvement over allowing legislators, Democrat or Republican, to choose their own voters. Only eight states currently use independent redistricting for congressional seats; 14 for their state legislatures. Other states use hybrid systems.

In Michigan, which placed redistricting in the hands of a citizen-led, independent commission in 2018, surveys show a majority of voters approve of the results.

It’s simply absurd to allow players to referee their own games, especially with such high stakes — and with players who have such sharp disagreements over the rules of the game. We need real referees. However the matter is settled this year, we can expect disputes following the next round of redistricting and the one after that and the one after that. Until we finally wise up.

— Winston-Salem Journal