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Why Your Vote Matters: North Carolina

October 21st, 2018, 1:56pm by Sam Wang

Part of a series on Key Elections Near You.

One of the most remarkable states in this year’s election is North Carolina. Thanks to a lax state constitution, more than anywhere else in the Union, partisans have had the opportunity in North Carolina to isolate government from voters in a remarkable manner. But in two weeks, voters have an opportunity to get the Tar Heel State back on track.

Voters will choose a key state Supreme Court justice and the Congressional delegation, and vote on multiple critical ballot questions. These races will affect not just Congress, but life for Carolinians for decades to come – how judges are appointed and how elections are run. I cannot think of a more essential place for people to get out the vote statewide.

The fire-breathing North Carolina legislative majority has committed or attempted a wide range of actions to maintain its own power: gerrymandering, limiting voting access, and changing election rules (even in the middle of a campaign).

They can do all of this because of their unusually broad powers. The state constitution gives the legislature the sole power to draw legislative districts and congressional districts. Also, even in areas where the governor has a veto, a three-fifths vote by the legislature is enough to override – and gerrymandering gave them a large enough majority to meet that threshold. In this situation, the only meaningful check on their power has been federal or state courts.

For these reasons, the state Supreme Court candidacy of voting rights advocate Anita Earls is especially important because of voting-rights and redistricting issues. North Carolina’s state Supreme Court is, in my estimation, the single most likely path for that state to limit partisan gerrymandering. North Carolina has one of the most famous and extreme gerrymanders in the nation, sending 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats to Washington even if Democrats win a majority of votes. This is a sharp change from the last redistricting cycle, when essentially the same geographic population patterns were exploited by Democrats to elect 8 Democrats and 5 Republicans.

However, the Republican levee was lowered somewhat when federal courts required North Carolina to undo a racial gerrymander. African-Americans still only had the opportunity to elect three representatives, so they didn’t get any benefit at the time. The new map packed Democrats to a lesser degree into the three districts, which then left smaller margins of safety to the Republicans in the other 10 districts.

Disapproval of Trump has hit North Carolina particularly hard. In four Congressional districts where polls are available – the 2nd, the 7th, the 9th, and the 13th – opinion has swung 12 to 23 points toward the Democrats compared with Clinton-Trump 2016. These are districts in which Trump won 53-56% of the vote. For comparison, under the racial gerrymander, in 2012 Romney won the closest four Republican districts with 55-56% of the vote. So the racial gerrymandering decision may have lowered the threshold for flipping districts by several percentage points.

In polls, Democrats are competitive in all four districts: D+1%, D+4%, tie, and R+3%, respectively. To sum up: if any of these seats flips on November 6th, it will be thanks to a combination of federal court action and a blue wave of popular opinion.


Partisanship on the ballot does not stop there. The North Carolina Supreme Court currently has 4 Democrats and 3 Republicans. Earls is favored to win, which would make it 5 to 2. On the other hand, if she loses, Republicans have threatened to add two Republican justices to the court, which is allowed under their constitution. This would make a 5-4 Republican court – and remove the largest remaining check on the legislature’s power.

Finally, and this is important: on the ballot are multiple referenda that would concentrate even more power in the hands of the legislature. One ballot measure ewould make the legislature responsible for appointments to the election board. Another measure would give the legislature control of a key step in filling midterm vacancies on the state Supreme Court. And finally, there is a measure that will impose voter ID requirements.

All these measures have attracted strong opposition from Democrats and good government advocates. The election-board and judicial-appointments referenda are opposed by both Democratic and Republican former governors. There seems to be a general sense in North Carolina on all sides that the legislature has finally gone too far.

Tags: 2018 Election · House · Redistricting

2 Comments so far ↓

  • Jessica Francis

    Thanks for your site. In your series “Why Your Vote Matters” I would propose mentioning the Virginia state delegate race of last year that had an exact tie and was decided by a name pulled out of a bowl. (VA 94th district). This was especially noteworthy because the House of Delegates was at 50-49 in favor of R’s, so if a Democrat won it would be at 50-50 and force the body to make compromises. As it turned out the name pulled out of the bowl was the Republican’s, so it is now 51-49. So literally a single more person voting in that district would have changed the way the entire state functions.

  • Bren

    So Anita Earls won. I wonder what the path to getting fair NC legislature districts looks like now? I suppose a case must get thru the court before early 2020 so that we can get fair state legislature districts for the 2020 election in the fall?

    I still think the State legislature will have to draw a new map though, it can’t be 100% ordered by the courts, can it?

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