How North Carolina Cranked Partisanship Up to 11

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan lately working to undermine the authority of their newly elected Democratic governors are taking a page from the party’s 2016 playbook in North Carolina. They might want to take another look at how that worked out.

North Carolina Republicans’ attempts to cement power—first by redrawing the electoral map in 2011, then by making it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote, and finally by stripping power from the governor’s office—made the state a model of what can be accomplished by conservative lawmakers willing to go to extremes. Those same actions have bred an atmosphere of extreme partisanship in the state, where a voter backlash contributed to electoral losses for the GOP in 2016 and 2018, and allegations of absentee voter fraud unfolding in the 9th Congressional District seem poised to invalidate a Republican victory.

North Carolina, once a relatively moderate Southern swing state, is a case study in the ideological transformation that’s scrambled the last century’s alliances, with repercussions up and down the ranks, throughout all branches of government. Pat McCrory, who lost his seat as North Carolina’s Republican governor in 2016, now warns that no party will keep a swing state in its grip by changing the rules of the game. “I think both parties are guilty—at state, federal, and local levels—of being more worried about power grabs, as opposed to doing what’s right,” he says.

It’s a contagion that’s spreading: First Wisconsin and then Michigan passed rules in their lame-duck sessions to limit the authority of the governor’s office after it flipped to Democrats in both states in November’s elections. But such attempts to suppress the will of voters can backfire by animating those who feel they’re being disenfranchised, says Myrna Pérez, a voting-rights expert at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

Especially when the electorate is shifting, there’s a temptation for politicians to rig the game to preserve a status quo that’s worked for them thus far. “People who are motivated by power and control are going to use the levers that they can to keep that power and control,” Pérez says. “Part of the reason we have a democratic system and democratic norms is the idea that our systems and our institutions of power aren’t job security plans. They are actually supposed to be reflective of changes in where the country is going.”

Behind many of the recent political trends in North Carolina is Art Pope, a wealthy businessman in the state, founder of a string of conservative think tanks, and a major bankroller of Republican candidates in the 2010 Tea Party wave. That year, Republicans snatched decisive majorities from Democrats in both chambers of the state legislature. The new ruling party marched to the right, cutting taxes and spending, passing laws restricting abortion, and acting on some of Pope’s pet peeves, including eliminating public funding for judicial races. It also redrew congressional and legislative maps and introduced a stringent voter ID law.

Pope gives the government he helped create an A grade. “The Republican majority in the legislature brought good governance to North Carolina, especially compared to the corruption under the Democrats,” he says. Even he sees missteps, however. These include a 2016 law banning transgender people from using the bathroom matching their gender identity in state agencies and schools, which was mostly rescinded in 2017 after the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit to challenge its constitutionality. Pope considered the statewide law an overreaction to a local antidiscrimination measure, which he thought would fall of its own accord.

Republican overreach became clear in 2016, when the legislature tried to undercut Roy Cooper, the incoming Democratic governor. Lawmakers made the governor’s cabinet appointments subject to state senate approval and stripped the office of the right to choose university trustees. They also replaced a century-old law granting the governor the power to appoint a majority of the members of the state and county board of elections, splitting the power evenly between the two parties instead.

Cooper filed a series of lawsuits contesting the legislature’s actions, and won most of them. A three-judge state panel ruled in August that lawmakers had overstepped their bounds in restricting the governor’s authority to appoint board and commission members, and a separate judicial panel threw out the latest iteration of the elections board in October, declaring the legislature’s actions there unconstitutional. It did allow the board to stay intact through the midterm elections; and because of the ongoing investigation into absentee-ballot fraud, it extended that ruling into December.

While the alleged malfeasance in the 9th District isn’t a result of Republican-designed voting restrictions, it’s an outgrowth of the hyperpartisan, demographic-targeting ethos that has infected politics in the state. A political operative on the payroll of Republican candidate Mark Harris is being investigated for mishandling hundreds of absentee ballots, many of them cast by black voters in rural Bladen County. The state election board declined to certify Harris’s 905-vote lead, and Harris, while denying any knowledge of wrongdoing, has since said he’d be open to a new election.

Democrats in Wisconsin and Michigan are considering their legal options to restore power to their governors. Despite the electoral defeats and court challenges, Pope says the issues here aren’t even partisan: “I’ve been around a long time. The legislature and the governor have always fought each other over power.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at jgoodman74@bloomberg.net

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