I turned 18 years old in 2014, marking my first year of eligible voting, yet my first time voting under fairly drawn congressional districts won’t be until 2020.
I cast a ballot in both 2014 and 2016 and will undoubtedly vote this fall, yet in each of these congressional elections, the courts have deemed all of those district maps unconstitutional. Why? Gerrymandering.
I had heard of gerrymandering in years past, but it wasn’t until my fellowship with Common Cause that I learned my own campus, N.C. A&T, was divided into two congressional districts: District 6 and District 13. Not only did dividing our campus prompt confusion, it also diluted the voting strength of predominantly black, progressive students by separating us into two safe, Republican-leaning districts.
This isn’t the first time our university, the largest historically black public university in the nation, has been gerrymandered. In 2016, a federal court ruled that the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature had unconstitutionally gerrymandered two of the state’s 13 congressional districts along racial lines. N.C. A&T was packed into one of those racially gerrymandered districts: District 12. The courts ordered the maps to be redrawn, and while Republican legislative leaders claimed they ignored race entirely, they intentionally drew extremely partisan, gerrymandered maps, splitting our campus along with it.
Because of the aggressive redrawing of these districts to favor Republican lawmakers, my vote and those of my peers were diluted and our ability to elect the representatives we chose was undermined.
Enter government watchdog Common Cause, the same organization that employed me in a democracy fellowship. Its civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit, Common Cause v. Rucho, which urged the court to find that North Carolina’s congressional districts were an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, requiring that the districts be redrawn to make them more fair and representative of the diverse state population. A panel of U.S. District Court judges recently reaffirmed that the plaintiffs in this case have standing and that the 2016 congressional district map was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The General Assembly has filed notice of its intent to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, the courts ruled that imposing a new schedule for North Carolina’s congressional elections as soon as this November would confuse voters and depress voter turnout. I don’t disagree, but for once, I would like to vote in a fair congressional district.
If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the North Carolina case during the coming term and creates rules to determine how much partisan gerrymandering is too much, it will surely change electoral politics across the nation, and cement just political representation in our rule of law.
But in the meantime I worry about the state of our democracy in North Carolina. How can we encourage an entire generation of young people, like me, to participate fully in democracy when their first decade of voting has been nearly stripped of its constitutionality? What do you say to the A&T student who feels politically victimized by the Republican state legislature because of race or party affiliation? While the short-term consequences are vile, such as unfair elections and diluted voting strength, I fear the psychological repercussions of years of unconstitutional elections could truly damage our state.
Without a doubt, the state legislature sought to weaken the vote of A&T, the largest concentration of young, black eligible voters in the state of North Carolina. But its attempt at crippling the political infrastructure of our university, and the greater Greensboro area, just might backfire.
When students understand that their representatives are choosing voters, rather than the voters choosing their representatives, they become even more engaged. When students hear that their District 6 congressman, U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, is rumored to be on the short list for U.S. Speaker of the House, it gets their attention. When students are aware that their District 13 congressman, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, sells AK-47 assault-style weapons and bump stocks in his family gun store, it definitely sparks a conversation.
For the first time in university history, our Student Government Association has started a political action committee. More than 100 students attended a recent voter education event to learn how to register other students to vote. Fraternities and sororities are hosting events and registering students by the dozens. In this political climate, we have no choice but to further engage and turn out to the polls.
I believe the Founding Fathers intended “one person, one vote” when laboring over our vaunted U.S. Constitution. So we demand meticulously fair district maps, which will make our elected representatives more accountable to us and encourage better ideas to prevail. And perhaps more important, it will allow all North Carolinians fair political representation.