There are snakes, and then there are snakes.
One snake making headlines recently in North Carolina is the infamous 12th Congressional District, which winds its way from Greensboro to Charlotte, traveling a path that looks remarkably similar to Interstate 85.
For those who’ve yet to cast a ballot in this year’s election, it’s important to note that the snake represents the “old” 12th District. The new version, adopted just this year, occupies part of only one county: Mecklenburg.
But the changing map hasn’t stopped political partisans from using the old snake to their advantage. The first half of a current television ad says, “It’s called the snake — a long, skinny congressional district drawn along I-85 to segregate African-American voters. The snake, and others like it, were drawn by state legislators as a partisan power grab.”
But that truth gets muddled by the rest of the ad, which attacks incumbent N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds. In the next sentence, the ad blames Edmunds for writing a court decision “supporting his party’s discrimination.”
Edmunds did, in fact, write a 2014 N.C. Supreme Court opinion that upheld North Carolina’s congressional districts. Edmunds is a registered Republican. The Republican-led General Assembly drew the congressional districts covered in Edmunds’ majority opinion.
But that opinion affirmed a unanimous 171-page decision in July 2013 from a three-member panel of N.C. Superior Court judges. Two of those three judges were Democrats. All three were appointed by a Democratic N.C. Supreme Court chief justice.
Yes, a three-judge panel led by Democrats upheld the congressional districts that included the snake. And that’s not all.
The snake also survived a review from President Obama’s U.S. Justice Department in 2011. That was no small feat, given the fact that the federal approval process — officially known as preclearance — had led the Justice Department to reject North Carolina’s electoral redistricting plans eight times from 1981 through the end of Democratic Party control of the process in 2010.
A federal Cabinet agency, led by Democrats, with a long history of scrutinizing and rejecting North Carolina election maps, approved the snake and the rest of the Republican-led General Assembly’s election maps in November 2011. The Justice Department rendered its decision roughly three months after lawmakers approved the maps. That decision arrived three years before Edmunds’ legal opinion.
You’ll find no mention of any of these facts in the snake ad — facts that counter the narrative of Bob Edmunds writing a decision supporting “his party’s discrimination.”
But careful readers will note that this column contends that the first half of the ad is true. One needs to dig a little deeper into Tar Heel political history to understand why.
North Carolina lawmakers must redraw state congressional and legislative election maps at least once every 10 years to incorporate new census data. Reformers, including those with the John Locke Foundation, have argued for years that the map-drawing process should change.
But current rules allow the party controlling the General Assembly to draw election maps to their partisan advantage. The process is the same today as it was after the 1990 census, when Democrats controlled the General Assembly and enjoyed a majority within North Carolina’s congressional delegation.
As lawmakers attempted to draw election maps to preserve Democratic control, they ran into a new obstacle. For the first time, the federal government was requiring that lawmakers draw maps to ensure that minorities had a chance to elect candidates of their choice.
For the state’s congressional map, Democrats attempted to meet this requirement by drawing a single “majority-minority” district among North Carolina’s then 12 congressional slots. Complaints from state Republicans prompted the U.S. Justice Department, led by then-President George H.W. Bush’s GOP appointees, to call for creation of a second “majority-minority” district. The justification was that North Carolina’s African-American population was large enough to necessitate more than one in 12 districts in which the black vote would hold sway.
Republicans had their own plan for meeting this requirement, one which would have given the GOP a better chance to win congressional elections statewide, but Democrats had the opportunity to redraw their own set of maps.
Hoping to meet the feds’ mandate while still maintaining partisan control (or making a “partisan power grab”) of the congressional delegation, legislative Democrats working more than 20 years ago came up with … the snake, “a long, skinny congressional district drawn along I-85 to segregate African-American voters.”
Voters first saw that snake in 1992. They’ve seen it in every congressional election — 12 in all — since then. It survived more than 20 years of U.S. Justice Department reviews and every round of election-map court fights until the most recent litigation threw it out.
Whoever concocted the snake ad for its sponsor, N.C. Families First, should have looked into the truth of the two-decade-old 12th District before smearing Edmunds.
Not to have done so shows the signs of being a “treacherous person” or “insidious enemy.” There’s a word in the dictionary under the letter “s” for that sort of person.
Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.