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Lawsuits Challenge Republican Power Grab in North Carolina

Republicans are using their gerrymandered supermajority to mislead voters with four constitutional amendments.

An elderly couple reads a ballot prior to voting on November 8, 2016, in Durham, North Carolina.

Democracy is “under siege” in North Carolina, according to a legal brief filed by the NAACP alongside a lawsuit against the state’s top Republican lawmakers on Monday. A federal court ruled in 2016 that Republicans unconstitutionally redrew North Carolina voting districts along partisan and racial lines back in 2011, and now Democrats and progressive groups say the GOP is using the legislative supermajority it gained as a result of that illegal gerrymandering to make a boldfaced power grab ahead of the November elections.

The new lawsuit filed Monday by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) on behalf of a coalition of civil rights and environmental groups targets four constitutional amendments that the Republican-controlled legislature has placed on the November ballot.

One measure would reinstate voter ID requirements in state where a strict voter ID law was struck down in federal court for targeting Black voters “with almost surgical precision.” Others are written to mislead voters and boost Republican turnout in a swing state that recently elected a Democrat to the governor’s office, according to the complaint.

“Misleading voters to seize power and deny access to the ballot through discriminatory photo voter ID is not only a dangerous threat to our state’s future, it is also illegal,” North Carolina NAACP President Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman said in a statement. “The US Supreme Court limited the powers of this unconstitutional, gerrymandered legislature, and so the legislature must be stopped from carrying out this extraordinary attack.”

Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s Democratic governor, recently announced his own lawsuit against two of the proposed amendments to the state’s constitution after the Republican supermajority overrode his veto of a law disbanding a state commission that writes ballot language for such measures. Republican lawmakers have now drafted their own language for six ballot proposals, and Cooper and other critics claim they are written to confuse and mislead voters.

The two ballot measures would alter the balance of power in the state’s government by taking away the governor’s power to appoint judges between elections and appoint and direct members of state executive boards and commissions, and handing that power over to the legislature.

“This is about falsely and unconstitutionally misleading voters and crippling the checks and balances that are the foundation of our democracy,” Cooper said in a statement on Saturday.

Another ballot measure challenged by a coalition of progressive groups would prevent future lawmakers from raising income tax beyond 7 percent, a cap that could limit funding for civil rights enforcement and environmental protections, according to the SELC. The group says Republicans in North Carolina have used their control of the state legislature to erode clean air and water protections and limit funding for environmental enforcement.

While the two measures aimed at curbing Cooper’s power would make big changes to the structure of North Carolina’s government, the proposal to enshrine a voter ID requirement in the state constitution is generating national controversy due to the state’s history of voter suppression. Voter ID laws have been used across the country to suppress lower-income voters and voters of color. A federal court struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law in 2016 after ruling that it unfairly targeted marginalized voters, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case last year.

“It all started with the racial gerrymandering,” said Kym Hunter, the SELC attorney who filed the lawsuit, in an interview with Truthout.

After riding the Tea Party wave into power, Republican state lawmakers began redrawing voting districts in North Carolina in 2011 that helped them gain a supermajority in the state legislature in later elections. The GOP is now using the same supermajority to place the proposed amendments to the state constitution on the ballot.

The NAACP and other groups challenged the gerrymandering in court, and in 2016 a federal three-judge panel declared that race was a “predominate factor” in the redrawing of 28 districts, a violation of the voting rights act.

“For seven years we’ve actually all been living in a state where voices have been suppressed,” Hunter said, “and during that time this unconstitutionally constituted body has taken every step it can to enlarge its own power and take power away from the governor and the attorney general.”

State lawmakers were ordered to redraw 117 districts as a result of the ruling striking down the gerrymandered electoral map, but Hunter said Republicans dragged their feet to delay implementation of new maps. The new maps go into effect during the November election, when anti-Trump energy among Democrats and swing voters threatens their stranglehold over the state legislature.

Hunter said the Republicans in North Carolina know they could lose their supermajority in the legislature once the new, legal electoral maps go into effect, and their proposals to amend the state constitution are a “last-ditch attempt” to hold on to power.

“So many of their laws that have been passed have been struck down by the judiciary, so they have now attempted to take over the judiciary, too, in a number of ways, including one of these amendments that would put judicial appointments in the hands of the general assembly rather than the governor,” Hunter said.

The NAACP, SELC and other groups are asking a state court to prevent Republican lawmakers from placing their proposed constitutional amendments on the November ballot, and a hearing is scheduled for Tuesday morning.

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