Things are getting ugly in North Carolina on the election front. A panel of federal judges has tossed out part of the congressional district map which has been under construction for five years now. The boundaries for two of their districts, the 1st and the 12th, have been tossed because Republicans allegedly packed too many black voters into them. If that leaves you scratching your head, we’ll get to the underlying reasons shortly. (Yahoo News)

Federal judges struck down late Friday two majority black congressional districts in North Carolina, saying race was the predominant factor in drawing those lines but state legislators lacked justification in using that practice.

Two of the three judges on the redistricting panel hearing the 2013 lawsuit agreed the size and composition of both the 1st and 12th Districts violated the Constitution’s equal protection provision and must be redrawn.

The judges ordered the General Assembly to come up with new boundaries by Feb. 19, although Republican lawmakers who helped shepherd North Carolina’s congressional map through the legislature in 2011 said a swift appeal was coming. The state could seek a delay at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Because of the rampant use of gerrymandering all over the nation this story might produce a yawn from many readers. We have these cases cropping up all the time, though generally it’s in the first couple of years after each census. This one is causing a lot more consternation though, because the state’s congressional primary elections are coming up next month and absentee ballots are already coming in. The judges gave the state barely two weeks to draw new lines and resubmit them. By that time the mail in ballots will be well on their way, so what do they plan to do about that?

Meanwhile, the state NAACP is on the record saying this is a great decision because the current district lines are examples of racism. Wait… what? (WRAL)

Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, said the federal court ruling validates the group’s argument for the past five years that the voting districts are illegal.

“This unanimous court decision vindicates the record we first brought to the attention of the public – that the state legislature under (Senate President Pro Tem Phil) Berger and (former House Speaker Thom) Tillis had drawn racially biased unconstitutional voting districts,” Barber said in an email to WRAL News. “This is a huge victory in our fight against 21st-century racism and discrimination.”

As I mentioned at the top, there may be a bit of confusion over how building two districts with even more black voters in them is racist, but there’s something to the theory. For their part, the Republicans in charge of the state legislature are saying that they have cut the districts to be fully in line with the Voting Rights Act. They make a good case for at least one of the districts because of the act’s requirement to establish Minority Majority Districts, particularly across the south, ensuring minority voters some territory where minority candidates would stand a better chance of winning. (Somewhere out there, Senator Tim Scott is hearing this and banging his head on his desk.)

So how is that racist? As the theory goes, the GOP supposedly latched on to that requirement as a way to channel as many minority voters into a few districts they knew they would lose anyway, tilting the balance in the opposite direction in neighboring districts. There was a not very subtle explanation of this in the Atlantic a couple of years ago.

But just in time for the redistricting in 1990, some enterprising Republicans began noticing a rather curious fact: The drawing of majority-minority districts not only elected more minorities, it also had the effect of bleeding minority voters out of all the surrounding districts. Given that minority voters were the most reliably Democratic voters, that made all of the neighboring districts more Republican. The black, Latino, and Asian representatives mostly were replacing white Democrats, and the increase in minority representation was coming at the expense of electing fewer Democrats. The Democrats had been tripped up by a classic Catch-22, as had minority voters: Even as legislatures were becoming more diverse, they were ironically becoming less friendly to the agenda of racial minorities.

I’ll just skip over my rant about how mandating district construction based on racial divisions goes against the entire idea of building a truly post-racial, colorblind country. You’ve heard it all here before. But the North Carolina case does speak to the larger need to reform this process. If they hit too much of a delay here they’re going to wind up disenfranchising the entire state, not just one subset of it. The idea of “independent panels” making up district maps isn’t much better than what we have now because it would require finding legitimately independent people to get involved with what is, by definition, a politically tainted procedure. We’re at the point now where we should be able to use computer programs to simply divide up states into equal numbers of people with the most compact district shapes possible. Then you just let the chips fall where they may.

Why we’re not already doing this is a mystery to me.

North Carolina