Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
During the past month, the new Republican majority controlling North Carolina's State Supreme Court issued reversals of previous rulings and overturned a trial court decision. Now, these are moves that are going to have meaningful effects on the ability to cast a vote in the state and will have critical implications for local, state, and national election outcomes. Here's Michael Whatley, Chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, talking with CBS.
Michael Whatley: I think it's a great day for North Carolina, I think it's a great day for the rule of law, and I think it's a great day for North Carolina voters.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In order to think about whether or not this has been a great day, with me now is Ari Berman, national voting rights correspondent for Mother Jones. Welcome back to The Takeaway, Ari.
Ari Berman: Hey, Melissa, always great to talk to you again. Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, let's just go through each piece of this. What happened with voter ID?
Ari Berman: The big picture is that there were three major voting rights decisions in North Carolina in one day, which in and of itself was pretty unusual. One of the things they did was to reinstate a voter ID law in North Carolina, requiring strict government-issued ID to cast a ballot. This was not the first time the Republican legislature in North Carolina had passed such a law. They had put voter ID into a package of laws in advance of the 2016 election that also cut early voting and eliminated same-day voter registration, did things like that.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal enacted that law prior to the 2016 election, targeted Black voters in the court's words with almost surgical precision, but then what the North Carolina legislature did is they passed a voter ID law without all of those other provisions, and that's what the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld recently.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me a bit about how this happens. Your point that there are three decisions on a single day that they are actually reversing, what is going on with the current makeup of the court, and when did this court become so lopsided?
Ari Berman: It became lopsided as a result of the last election, there was previously a four to three Democratic Progressive majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court, that flipped to a five to two Republican Conservative majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court. North Carolina is one of those states like Wisconsin, in which state supreme court justices are elected, and Republicans and Conservatives pour a lot of money into the court to try to flip it, they were successful.
What you saw really felt more like a political power grab than a court doing the normal course of business, because I can't recall any time in which a court has released on the same day, three decisions, rolling back voting rights in different contexts, and also reversing decisions that the court itself had made just a few months earlier. This was really a brazen exercise of power. This was really the court saying, "We can do whatever we want now, and there's nothing you can do about it."
Remember, there's now a supermajority in the North Carolina legislature because one Democratic lawmaker switched parties. The Democratic governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper is basically functionally irrelevant. The most powerful entities in the state of North Carolina are the heavily gerrymandered Republican state legislature, and the Supreme Court in North Carolina that just upheld the gerrymandering that keeps Republicans in power.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, the court members though, they're not elected in gerrymandered districts. They're elected statewide?
Ari Berman: They are elected statewide. Yes, in that sense, gerrymandering doesn't affect their races. Of course, all the other things that have warped North Carolina politics and politics across the country. For example, the tremendous amount of dark money that flows into these races, that also affects the court. North Carolina is one of those states like Wisconsin, like Ohio, where Republicans have poured a lot of money over the past decade and a half into flipping the state.
Remember, Obama won North Carolina in 2008, but that feels like a century ago, because really, ever since then, Republicans have just been hell-bent on turning what had been a pretty moderate state in the South into something that has become far more hard-edged, conservative, and extreme.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Precisely on this point, though, I want to just go to these justices. Again, we've got this flip. In statewide elections. Were voters making a choice based on voter laws? In other words, even if we are unhappy with these outcomes, standing in a progressive position relative to voting, when you look at the recent election of Supreme Court justices, were they running on changing how voting is done, changing gerrymandering? Was this at the core of how voters made their choice?
Ari Berman: It didn't seem like that was the case to me. Melissa, you live there. You would be better equipped to answer the question of what voters saw on TV ads. Generally speaking, I don't think voters have a huge understanding of State Supreme Court elections, with a few exceptions. Wisconsin recently being one exception, where a lot of attention was paid to a state Supreme Court election. There are a lot of other things going on in 2022.
This was a major midterm election. I think most voters were focused on other issues. I think generally speaking, the issues that tend to resonate with the courts are law and order, crime, things like that. Usually, gerrymandering, things like that, voter laws are not at the center of those campaigns. I think if you looked at recent polling, I just saw a poll that 80% of North Carolinians don't support gerrymandering.
I don't think it was like the Republicans said, "If we get control, we're going to re-gerrymander the state, and that's going to be super popular with voters." I think it was one of those things where they didn't really talk about it, they probably just talked and all this vague language that judges usually talk about, and then they got in there and they said, "Now we have the power. We can basically do whatever we want, even if it's at odds with public opinion."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ari, I want to dig in on gerrymandering a bit more here, because obviously, now this is both talking about what the maps will look like going forward for congressional and state elections. Do you have a sense, based on the map that had been previously overturned about what difference this is likely to make?
Ari Berman: Probably, a huge difference. The maps that Republicans passed for the state legislature were considered to be among the most gerrymandered in the country, and the congressional map that North Carolina legislature passed was also viewed as among the most gerrymandered maps in the country. The North Carolina State Legislature passed maps for the US House that would have given Republicans anywhere from 71% to 78% of seats in a state that is close to 50-50.
When the court ordered those maps to be redrawn, when it struck those down and ordered them to be redrawn in advance of the 2022 election, the experts that redrew it, produced a map that had an even split in the state's congressional delegation. Right now, there's seven Democrats and seven Republicans elected to North Carolina for the US House. That closely mirrors what statewide elections look like in North Carolina. Now, when Republicans redraw the maps, they're likely to pick up three to four seats.
Just from North Carolina alone, there could be a three to four-seat advantage for the National Republican majority, and that's going to make it really hard for Democrats to be able to try to pick up and flip the house in 2024.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We take a quick pause right here, but don't go anywhere. We're back with more on The Takeaway right after this. Ari Berman is the national voting rights correspondent for Mother Jones. From a strategic perspective, even where Democrats not only in North Carolina but across the country can even start to think about what constitutes a strategy for pushing back? That if you're in districts this gerrymandered, then the normal things of register your people, turn out your base.
That's how parties and candidates think. I keep reflecting on your point that in 2008, President Obama won the state, that going back as far as Terry Sanford, this was really understood to be a purple state in every sense. The part of what seems to have gone on here is that North Carolina's Democrats do lack the overarching strategy that we've seen, for example, in Georgia.
Ari Berman: That's right. One of the reasons why there was such a big push for federal legislation protecting voting rights, which we talked about quite often on this show, was because it would have included a ban on partisan gerrymandering. The Freedom to Vote Act, which was filibustered by Republicans in the Senate, I guess two years ago at this point, with the support of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, and one-time Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema.
One of the reasons that the Freedom to Vote Act was such a big deal, was it included the prohibitions on gerrymandering, that would have preempted what the state courts wanted to do in North Carolina. It would have said that gerrymandering for federal elections is unconstitutional if it's done in an extremely partisan manner. The fact that that federal legislation didn't pass means that there isn't that blanket protection for voting rights against gerrymandering.
Also, you have the US Supreme Court. Of course, hanging over this entire North Carolina case is what the US Supreme Court is going to do because right now they're weighing a decision on North Carolina that directly deals with gerrymandering. They're basically saying, should the North Carolina Legislature have blanket power to be able to set voting laws and redistricting maps?
Now, it seems like the North Carolina Supreme Court has already answered that question for the US Supreme Court and said in this case that they were going to defer to the legislature, but nonetheless, there's this big question of how much power do state legislatures have to gerrymander maps to set restrictive voting laws, and can other entities like state Supreme Courts, like governors, et cetera, et cetera, oversee that?
Right now in North Carolina, Republicans, especially the Legislature, essentially have unlimited power because they can't be checked by the governor with the supermajority and they also can't be checked by the current makeup of the state Supreme Court. Democrats are going to have to figure out a way to try to change the balance of power on the court. That could take a long time, or they have to figure out a way to win other elections where they would have some oversight of the court or try to win some of these districts that favor Republicans, but that aren't insurmountable in terms of their makeup.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You also got to wonder if maybe they need to figure out how to keep the members of their party in their party, because this super majority occurs because a person who was a Democrat, who was recently elected, who ran as a Democrat, who ran, in fact, as a pro-choice Democrat, flipped parties.
Ari Berman: Tricia Cotham is who you're talking about. Very puzzling. I'm not sure anyone can give you a good answer for why she flipped parties. She represents a very liberal district outside of Charlotte, so she's almost certainly going to lose that district in the next election. She was a very liberal member. Apparently, she said Democrats were mean to her when she missed some votes, and so she moved to the Republicans. She famously gave a speech on the floor of the North Carolina House talking about having an abortion and how she was so strongly pro-choice.
Then she just voted with North Carolina Republicans in favor of a 12-week abortion ban. It's very puzzling what's happening here. It's once again a very disturbing story that we're seeing of Republicans using super majorities that they've partially gotten through gerrymandering to do very outlandish things. We've seen that story happen in Tennessee, where they expelled the two Democratic members. We've seen this story play out in lots of different states where first off, Republicans got large majorities in states that were close to 50-50.
Then they expanded those large majorities into basically super majorities in which they could do whatever they want. That's really warping the character of a place like North Carolina, which, as you say, seem to be headed closer to a path towards Georgia. It wasn't so long ago that North Carolina was considered far more progressive than a state like Georgia. Now it seems like North Carolina is headed more towards the Tenessees and the Mississippis of the world. I think that's making a lot of people uncomfortable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ari Berman is the national voting rights correspondent for Mother Jones. Ari, it is always lovely to talk with you.
Ari Berman: Always great to talk to you and thanks so much for all the great work you've done on this show, Melissa.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.