OPINION: Hyper-partisan gerrymandering and separation of powers can’t co-exist

Published 10:44 am Tuesday, August 13, 2019

By Gov. James G. Martin, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., Gov. Michael F. Easley and Gov. Beverly E. Perdue

After 36 consecutive years of governing the great State of North Carolina, we have gained a perspective that few will ever experience. Although our policies and political viewpoints often differ, today we stand united on a matter that has critical importance to the constitutional democracy of our state.

On Wednesday, we joined together in filing an amici curiae brief in Wake County Superior Court in support of the plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis. Our brief urges the state courts to end North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering.

We know first-hand that state government works best when it works together. We also understand the importance of representing the entire state as its chief executive. When the executive and legislative branches communicate and cooperate, they can develop creative solutions for the tough problems that our State faces, and they can reach common ground solutions on the issues that might otherwise divide us.

Throughout our terms, we all experienced highs and lows in the functioning of state government. The highs came when members of different political parties worked together to move our State forward, and when all three branches respected the separation of powers at the core of our constitutional system. The lows came when progress took a back seat to partisanship, and when the legislature sought to expand its own power at the expense of the voter.

Over the past decade or more, the North Carolina General Assembly has taken drastic measures to limit or eliminate the powers of the Governor, regardless of which party was in power. Legislators took 1,200 appointments from the governor, required legislative approval of the governor’s cabinet members and eliminated the governor’s ability to appoint trustees to the University of North Carolina system. They also tried to get amendments to the state’s constitution to give lawmakers the power to determine who serves on an election board and to allow the legislature to make judicial appointments. We vigorously fought those two amendments. Fortunately, voters rejected them at the ballot box.

Today, partisan rancor and legislative attacks on the other branches are the new normal. The reason is partisan gerrymandering. Increasingly sophisticated gerrymanders produce increasingly partisan legislators — legislators who are beholden to the sectarian interests of the party leaders who draw their district lines and the very small number of voters who are most likely to vote in primary elections. These legislators have no real choice but to pursue hyper-partisan agendas without regard for the separation of powers. And today’s gerrymanders are impervious to the measures that constrained these partisan forces and kept our government on track in the past. By design, partisan gerrymandering impedes the voters from exerting their will and rooting out partisanship in the voting booth. And at the extreme, partisan gerrymandering licenses a legislative super-majority to pursue its most zealous impulses, trampling any other branch that stands in its way.

The advancement of technology and the sophistication of computer modeling means mapmakers can draw gerrymanders with enough precision to make them unbreakable in all but the most extreme circumstances. And add to it the explosion of big data, mapmakers can apply their increasingly sophisticated tools using granular information about voters which allows them to predict and control election outcomes with pinpoint accuracy.

These tools and technologies allow either party to draw super-majorities, which allows the legislature to run roughshod over the other two branches of government.

Regardless of party in control, our separation of powers cannot survive with a hyper-partisan gerrymandered legislature. It is up to the courts to end partisan gerrymandering and preserve the separation of powers. Time is critical. We urge the court to exercise its constitutional authority to end partisan gerrymandering now, so that the remedy is implemented before the next general election, through an open, transparent and non-partisan process.

The effects of hyper-partisan gerrymandering show up today in unforeseen super-majorities that have sought to kidnap power from the other branches of government and appropriate them to themselves.

That is why we fought those proposed constitutional amendments last year. These power grabs by the legislature will not stop regardless which party is in power. If the legislature will not fix this problem, then the courts must act in order to protect the powers of the Judicial and Executive branches of government as established by our constitution.