RALEIGH — It was 2000, and the North Carolina General Assembly was in the final throes of its yearly deliberations.
Republicans weren’t a happy bunch. A provision stuck into a bill, sprung on them by Democrats on the final day of the legislative session, was the cause of their despair.
The provision allowed the majority Democrats on local boards of election — rather than unanimous agreement by Democrats and Republicans — to determine where satellite early-voting sites would be set up.
As then-House Majority Leader Phil Baddour explained the bill, about 30 Republicans stood in unison and began yelling to be recognized. They hoisted signs reading, “Shame.” House Speaker Jim Black called in the Capitol police, saying later that he feared fistfights would break out.
Republicans were rightfully upset about what they saw as a power grab by Democrats, a maneuver potentially boosting their chances in the 2000 election by putting early-voting sites in areas favorable to Democrats.
Their fears may have been unfounded. Early voters that year roughly reflected how voters overall registered in the state.
Still, it’s an unfortunate part of politics that the elected will use their power to try to give their chosen party advantages come election time.
The most obvious means of doing so is drawing electoral district lines. At least once every 10 years, new electoral districts are drawn to reflect geographic shifts in population.
In North Carolina, those line shifts have historically meant gerrymandering designed to benefit the Democratic Party and incumbents of both parties. They’ve also meant lawsuits from the party that is out of power, making various claims about state and federal constitutions and voting.
Because 2011 is the year for another round of line-drawing, more of the same is in store.
With Republicans now in control of the state legislature – and both legislative and congressional redistricting – North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry recently showed how the elected can come to regard the process of choosing voters, rather than voters choosing candidates.
“Clearly (U.S.) Reps. (Larry) Kissell and (Brad) Miller are serving their final term,” he told Politico.
Gerrymandering, as distasteful as it is, doesn’t actually limit an individual’s right or access to voting.
Other bills being considered by state legislators may.
Critics charge that proposals to require a photo ID to vote will mean that some legitimate voters will be denied the right to vote. Even a few Republicans ended up condemning a bill pushed by their fellow party members in the House to shorten North Carolina’s early-voting period.
Republicans, apparently fearful of the Obama machine in 2012, just aren’t as sophisticated as their Democratic colleagues.
Democrats learned a long time ago that the way to help yourself is to try to improve the access of your voters, not hinder that of your opponents. Anything else can easily be seen as voter suppression.
Maybe Democrats need to rummage around in the offices of some longtime Republican in the House. They might find some creased, weathered signs reading, “Shame.”
Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.