Program Report: Anita Earls – Voting Rights

Less than 7 weeks before election day, we have a timely presentation from one of the candidates. Anita Earls is a lawyer currently running for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court. She is a Yale Law School graduate who for over thirty years has been an advocate for civil rights, voting rights, families and fair political processes. Ms. Earls was introduced by Judge Nancy Gordon.

Ms. Earls is the founder and Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, was the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S Department of Justice in the Clinton administration, the Director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a civil rights attorney at North Carolina’s first integrated law firm, Ferguson, Stein, Wallas, Adkins, Gresham & Sumter in Charlotte.

Ms. Earls topic on Monday was voting rights, a topic that has put North Carolina in the news a lot in recent years. With control of the General Assembly during the last redistricting, Republicans made the state one of the most drastic examples of gerrymandering in the country. In statewide elections Democrats and Republicans are split almost 50/50. Yet of North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts, only 3 are held by Democrats.  Those three districts also have the three highest CPVI, which stands for Cook Partisan Voting Index, which means essentially that the last redistricting packed as many Democrats into those three districts as they could.

How could they do that? According to Ms. Earls, one reason Republicans give is that the Voting Rights Act required them to, although that is disputed by opponent organizations including the NAACP. Two of the three Democrats are Black including G. K. Butterfield whose district includes most of Durham and several of the poor rural Northeast Counties. David Price represents some of Durham, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough in Orange County and all of Raleigh.  The third Democratic District includes Charlotte and is represented by Alma Adams.

Ms. Earls, noted that the other reason the Republicans give for the current districting was that it was the legislature’s duty to redraw them and they were elected, which sounds suspiciously like “we did it because we could.”

Actually, that notion was challenged by law suits led by Ms. Earls. One is Covington v.  North Carolina, in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that the state’s legislative district maps were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, and a lower court ordered those districts redrawn by a nonpartisan Special Master.  A three judge federal panel ruled that the state’s U.S. congressional district maps were unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders in League of Women Voters v. Rucho, which is currently under appeal. It appears that this will not be resolved in time to redraw districts before November’s election.

So how do we get back to a situation that is fair, and every vote counts equally? The most immediate possibility other than the courts is the expected “blue wave” that may provide a more balanced legislature that will tackle redistricting after the 2020 census. The legislature could also turn the task of redrawing the maps over to a non-partisan commission. Our own State Senator and Rotarian Mike Woodard was a sponsor of such a bill that got nowhere in our hyper-partisan legislature. He noted that unlike California, there is no mechanism in North Carolina to get a referendum on the ballot to let citizens vote on such a proposal through some grassroots effort.

We have a lot of good programs but few deal with issues as consequential to the future of our  democracy as this one. Ms. Earls brought data and a clear explanation of the issue to the meeting. Although she is running for office, it didn’t sound like a campaign speech as much as a lecture to law students, which is also part of her CV, and it certainly illustrated her mastery of this section of the law.

If you want to learn more about Ms. Earls, her campaign website is https://earls4justice.com/.  For more about North Carolina’s congressional district this Wikipedia page is helpful. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Carolina%27s_congressional_districts

Submitted by Jay Zenner

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