Federal courts have now issued two major decisions invalidating North Carolina’s laws regulating the political process — yesterday’s decision on racial redistricting and last week’s decision on the state’s package of changes regarding access to the ballot box. While the latter has and will attract far more media attention, yesterday’s decision invalidating the state’s redistricting map is actually of greater practical consequence.
Right to vote cases understandably generate a great deal of attention. Access to the ballot box, for eligible voters, is widely and properly recognized to be as fundamental a right as there is in democracy. These cases are easy to understand and trigger deep moral passions. But in practical terms, it remains unclear how large the effect is on eligible voters from the kinds of changes North Carolina made to early voting, same-day registration, and the like. We do not know, for example, how many of those who take advantage of more expansive early voting will still vote in any event when early voting days are reduced. Of course, one eligible voter who is wrongly deterred from voting by these kind of changes is one voter too many. But in terms of whether there are significant systematic effects on elections or policy outcomes from voter ID and similar laws to those struck down in North Carolina, there is still a good deal of uncertainty among those who study these issues.
But the redistricting case does have considerable systematic effects on elections and politics. What the legislature had done was to take districts in which white and black political coalitions had been electing minority candidates, even when black voters were no more than 40-some percent of the districts, and turning them into majority-black districts. The effects of this kind of districting (which NC insisted the Voting Rights Act required, a position the court held was incorrect) are to unnecessarily segregate voters by race; to destroy interracial political coalitions by turning districts into ones that are mostly majority white or black; and to further polarize politics by creating districts that tend to be either extremely liberal or conservative. By holding that the way NC used race to create these districts was unconstitutional, the court’s decision will reinforce the forces of centrism and moderation, along with enabling the continuation of the kind of inter-racial political coalitions that have existed in a state like NC for some years now.
[I must disclose, as readers of this blog know, that I argued the Alabama racial redistricting case two years ago on which the North Carolina redistricting decision rests]