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Partisan do-si-do

The Next Step in the Fight Against Gerrymandering



Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, joined by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., left, leads an effort to support the House Democrats' HR-1, the "For the People Act," which aims to reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen voting rights and ethics rules for public servants, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 27, 2019. Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Efforts to end partisan gerrymandering suffered a blow in the Supreme Court, but the push to end it now moves to state legislatures, starting with North Carolina.

Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, says his state is the poster child for political gerrymandering.

In the 2018 midterm election, Democratic candidates won a majority of votes for both houses of the state General Assembly and in U.S. congressional races, but the majority of seats nonetheless went to Republicans in all three arenas.

Bills introduced in the General Assembly to reform the redistricting process have garnered widespread support but can’t get committee hearings because the Republicans in power won’t allow it, Phillips said. In the last decade, courts have ruled that the state’s district maps were racially gerrymandered and tossed them, only to see them replaced with politically gerrymandered maps.

Yet North Carolina may advance a new frontier in the gerrymandering fight—by taking the maps to state court.

“We feel like the eyes of the nation might be watching what’s going to happen here,” Phillips said. Common Cause filed a lawsuit in North Carolina Superior Court and argued its case in court this summer. 

On Sept. 3, a three-judge panel struck down North Carolina’s districts, saying it violates the state constitution. The legislature has until Sept. 18 to draw new districts.

The judges also ruled that political partisan considerations and election results data cannot be used in the drawing of new districts. The invalidated districts also cannot be used as a starting point or otherwise influence the drawing of new districts. 

Common Cause sued in a state court because the federal government won’t interfere. At the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal government had no role to play in fighting partisan gerrymandering, the process by which lawmakers or appointed groups draw congressional and legislative maps to ensure majorities in their political favor. The case, in which Common Cause was the defendant, addressed a congressional gerrymandering dispute in North Carolina.

Justice Elena Kagan gave a sorrowful dissent from the bench, saying, “For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities. …”

“Of all times to abandon the court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” Kagan wrote.

The decision kicked the onus of redistricting reform to the states, and several are keeping the fight alive in courts, state legislatures and ballots, ahead of the 2020 census, which will start the decennial map-drawing process all over again.

In 2018, five states—Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Utah and Colorado—passed redistricting reform ballot measures, with four of those states establishing independent commissions or officials to determine the boundaries.

Ballot measures aimed at reform are set to appear later this year in states such as Oklahoma, Nebraska and Arkansas. But Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that states with no initiative process, such as Wisconsin, face tougher battles in their redistricting fights given that gerrymandered legislatures are reluctant to relinquish their own power.

“The [U.S.] Supreme Court essentially gave the green light to [gerrymandering], and it doesn’t matter the extent of the partisan bias or how distorted the map becomes,” Rudensky said. “That’s a really potent tool that would-be gerrymanderers have received from the court, and it makes it harder to ask people to give that up.”

But take North Carolina: Even as the state’s congressional maps faced review in the U.S. Supreme Court, Common Cause filed a lawsuit challenging their legislative boundaries in state courts as well, contending that partisan gerrymandering violates the state constitution.

Even though Common Cause North Carolina got what it asked for, Philipps expects the case to be appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, an elected body made up of seven Democrats and one Republican.

“If we’re successful in finding relief with our state Supreme Court, we hope it offers a blueprint for other states to follow,” Phillips said. “It can be done.”

Other states are seeking to amend their constitutions and are racing to get it done before the maps are redrawn in 2021.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court struck down its congressional map in 2011 and ordered it to be replaced with a new one, but the ruling didn’t change the partisan process used to draw the maps.

Advocacy groups such as Committee of Seventy and Fair Districts PA are fighting for an independent redistricting commission, but that requires a change to the state constitution, which can only be done if approved by majorities in two consecutive legislative sessions. To make it in time for the next map drawing, the reform bills introduced need to be passed twice by early 2021.

“We acknowledge that’s a really heavy lift,” said Pat Beaty, legislative director of Fair Districts PA. “People have told us it’s not possible.”

The activists have collected at least 60,000 signatures in support of the change, and nearly 300 municipalities and 20 counties, representing 68 percent of Pennsylvania’s population, also have passed resolutions supporting reform.

“The people of Pennsylvania want something to happen,” said David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. “They think we can do better.”

Virginia also is on its way to a state constitutional amendment. The General Assembly “overwhelmingly” approved an amendment in February that would establish an independent redistricting commission, said Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, which is leading a grassroots movement for reform.

The amendment needs to be approved by a newly-elected General Assembly in 2020 before it goes to the voters that November—another timeline intended to beat the 2021 redrawing.

The 2017 state election in Virginia provided a clear demonstration of gerrymandering in action, Cannon said.

The city of Newport News, with a population of about 180,000 people, was “carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey,” he said, containing two voting precincts that were each split between three different districts, meaning that voters stopping into one of those precincts to vote could have been handed one of three different ballots.

It led to voters receiving wrong ballots in a city where one of the elections was so close, it was literally decided by a name-drawing.

Even states that have made reform happen continue to face detractors and challenges. Michigan, which passed a voter initiative to establish an independent redistricting commission, suffered a short-term defeat with the June U.S. Supreme Court decision in Rucho v. Common Cause, which invalidated a lower federal court order for the Michigan legislature to draw new maps. A Republican-backed federal lawsuit was filed in July challenging the formation of the voter-approved redistricting commission. Therefore, the state will undergo one more election in 2020 with a map heavily tilted in favor of Republicans, despite Michigan’s recent history as a swing state.

Nancy Wang, executive director of Michigan’s Voters Not Politicians, isn’t worried. Her group continues to recruit applicants to join the redistricting panel and advise other states interested in similar reform.

“It’s hard to let go of power, so [Republicans] are doing everything they can to keep hold of it,” she said. “Voters are saying, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to stop this.’”

This article was originally published by YES! Magazine.

Partisan do-si-do

With Trump, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice Announces he’s Becoming a Republican. Again.



Last year, Jim Justice defied the odds for a Democrat in West Virginia, defeating a Republican by 7 percentage points to become governor even as Donald Trump carried the state by 42 points among the same set of voters in the general election..

On Thursday, Justice defied expectations by dramatically switching political parties to become a Republican in conjunction with a Trump rally in Huntington. The switch isn’t all that unprecedented for Justice: He has switched party affiliation more than once, with the most recent being a shift on February 27, 2015, from Republican to Democrat.

Justice also has given money to both Democrats and Republicans, including to two western Virginia Republicans congressmen in 2016 — when he was running as a Democrat for governor.

Justice has long praised Trump — including, again, during the 2016 campaign — and bragged about his close relationship with the president. Earlier this year, he hunted turkey and fished for trout in Monroe and Greenbrier counties with Donald Trump Jr.

More importantly for West Virginia Republicans, Justice also split from state Democrats to collaborate with Senate Republicans on a proposal to phase out the income tax — a plan that ultimately failed, but which perhaps helped lay the groundwork for Thursday’s announcement.

“Apparently he feels more comfortable in the party of fiscal responsibility and small government,” said West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, a Republican. 

Tim Armstead, Republican speaker of the state House of Delegates, said that Justice’s party switch is evidence of the West Virginia Republican Party’s resurgence over the last few years.

“I’m glad the governor has recognized that the bold, conservative principles of the Republican Party best represent the people of West Virginia and provide the best path forward to improve our state,” Armstead said. “The people of this state want change, and we welcome all West Virginians to the Republican ranks. The majority of the legislature was elected on a platform of strong, Republican principles, and we hope the governor embraces these principles as he joins our party.”

Former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who unsuccessfully ran against Justice in a three-way race for the Democratic nomination for governor last year, wrote in an email:

“Jim Justice switching parties is totally unsurprising. I am surprised it took him this long to switch back. He’s always done only what he thinks is best for him—to heck with everybody else. It’s why I could not endorse him. This should be a huge wakeup call for the current leadership of the West Virginia Democratic Party. Character and integrity matter.”

West Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore sounded downright hurt.

“Jim Justice said he became a Democrat because Democrats care about people,” Biafore wrote in a statement.

“I think we can all guess just who he cares about by his decision today and it’s not the people of West Virginia … Jim Justice took advantage of Democrats by taking our money and our votes. It’s a slap in the face to all of us who believed in what he was promising. I never thought I would see Jim Justice be anyone’s puppet. Shame on him,” Biafore added.

The New York Times broke the news of Justice’s impending party switch on Thursday afternoon, indicating it was the “very big announcement” that Trump had promised reporters at the White House earlier in the day.

The party shift apparently came as news to Justice’s staff.

However, many longtime observers seemed unsurprised, either because of long-term political trends or Justice’s past history.

According to a story by Phil Kabler at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who endorsed Justice in last year’s race, declined comment, and Nick Casey, Justice’s chief of staff and a former state Democratic Party chairman responded to news of the New York Times story by saying, “I thought they were fake news?”

Manchin’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 2018 released a statement Thursday, stating that he was “disappointed” in Justice’s decision, but said he would work with him.

“I have been and always will be a proud West Virginia Democrat. I am disappointed by Governor Justice’s decision to switch parties. While I do not agree with his decision, I have always said that I will work with anyone, no matter their political affiliation, to do what is best for the people of West Virginia,” said Manchin.

Manchin’s counterpart in the U.S. Senate, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, also issued a statement following the news of Justice’s party switch:

“The Republican Party represents the future of West Virginia. Today, Governor Justice joins me and other Republican leaders in Congress and at the state level who stand for policies that will improve the lives of West Virginians. As the lead Republican in West Virginia, I stand ready to work with him to grow the economy, fight for energy jobs, and create a stronger West Virginia,” she said.

Sarah Jones, a staff writer at the New Republic who is from Appalachia, described the Justice switch as “the opposite of a shock” and said the Democratic Party is partly to blame for its failure to build infrastructure in rural areas and for allowing Justice to win the nomination in lieu of a less conservative candidate.

Reaction at Trump’s rally was mixed. Trump made a joke at the size of the 6-foot, 7-inch Justice, and at one point the crowd booed the governor.

He got a friendlier reception from U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, another former Democrat who switched to Republican and now is running in a GOP primary for the chance to face Manchin next year.

“If Jim Justice is the next to change his party registration to Republican, I welcome him to the Republican party,” Jenkins told the New York Times.

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