The slow coup

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

Organizing a town hall during a North Carolina summer is risky business—especially in Moore County, where political conflict has turned into more than just harsh words. Last July, my organization hosted a town hall there anyway, in a little town called Carthage, because we believed local residents had something to say that their elected officials needed to hear. Close to one hundred people packed the room on a swampy Monday evening, even filing in after we started. The crowd grew so large we had to ransack the whole building just to find enough chairs. 

Sweating and frustrated, residents came for a fight. They debated which books belong in school libraries, slammed new voting rules, and asked questions they had for their elected representatives. Though attendees got rowdy, everyone had a chance to be heard, listened to, and respected. We realized we shared the same basic concerns. Above all, they questioned the total absence of their state lawmakers, who made no time to attend nor gave any response to the concerns of the people they purport to represent. 

North Carolina lawmakers have increasingly shielded themselves from accountability. Across 26 town halls organized by Common Cause North Carolina last summer, not a single Republican elected official in the state legislature joined us. Many Democrats chose not to respond either. 

Laws passed by state legislators have never been more consequential to everyday North Carolinians. At the same time, NC lawmakers’ responsiveness to the public will—and people’s right to transparent, honest, and accountable government—has never been worse. Public forums about new state laws are rare. Legislation is crafted behind closed doors and passed in a matter of days with no public hearings. Extremist candidates can run in districts drawn to guarantee their victory by appealing only to fringe views. 

North Carolinians have the right to a government that is representative of their communities and responsive to their needs. Nonetheless, North Carolina’s elected officials are erecting structural barriers to democracy that entrench their power while flagrantly claiming that their policy agenda reflects the will of their constituents. In turn, the increasingly authoritarian tenor of state elected officials’ policy positions threatens the fundamental rights of our state’s most vulnerable communities.

Since rising to power in 2010 and 2012, the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly has weaponized the drawing of voting districts to secure their continued dominance. This gerrymandering has distorted representative government and fueled the rise of extremist candidates immune to changing public sentiment. Packing Democratic voters into as few districts as possible, the legislature has consistently sought to ensure that Republicans hold at least 70% of federal congressional offices in a state that is evenly divided in partisan preference. In 2022, a 2-1 Republican majority on a lower court found that state legislative and congressional offices were drawn as extreme statistical outliers, all but guaranteeing Republican supermajorities. 

Manipulating voting district boundaries has come primarily at the expense of the state’s Black voters, as the state legislature has consistently flouted the requirements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In a 2016 case about other attacks on voting rights in North Carolina, a federal court castigated the legislature for targeting Black voters’ ability to cast a ballot “with surgical precision.” Over the last decade, civil rights organizations and grassroots organizers have curbed the worst excesses of the legislature’s electoral manipulation, culminating in a historic February 2022 ruling from the state supreme court that declared partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional.

A new Republican majority took control of North Carolina’s Supreme Court as a result of the 2022 election and moved quickly to re-open previously decided cases when asked by Republican legislative leaders. The previous court had issued landmark rulings not only against gerrymandering but also struck down racially discriminatory laws mandating photo voter identification and denying some formerly incarcerated people the right to vote. The new court, in a stunning departure from precedent, reversed each ruling within months—despite no change in the facts of those cases. The state supreme court has also signaled its intention to similarly reverse another case mandating the equitable funding of North Carolina’s public schools. Some of the justices now serve as nothing more than a rubber-stamp for the legislature, greenlighting their ability to manipulate voting districts, introduce new voting restrictions, and ignore concerns about racial equity or the constitutional and human rights to public education.

Later, in 2023, the state legislature moved to cement its supremacy even further. When passing the state budget, legislators added anti-transparency provisions exempting them from disclosing public records. They also empowered a secretive state commission with the authority to investigate state and local agencies, as well as non-government institutions receiving public funds, by demanding documents and other public records. These investigations do not have to be disclosed, and those who refuse to cooperate would be criminally charged. As the legislature insulated itself from public scrutiny, it also passed legislation stripping the Democratic governor of many of his powers in a bid to give control to state lawmakers. 

The North Carolina General Assembly has weaponized its growing power to pass tax cuts, restrict abortion, change voting laws, and loosen environmental protections—all without transparent public processes and all lacking broad public support. Regardless of people’s political stance, the legislature has made it increasingly difficult to turn public sentiment into public policy.

Nonpartisan watchdogs like Common Cause NC are sounding the alarm about the indifference and outright hostility to public engagement from state lawmakers, especially as they make moves to lock out political opposition or checks on their power. As 2,000 attendees at dozens of town halls last summer made clear, North Carolina voters see this as a turn to an authoritarian style of politics that rejects democracy and pluralism. But this fight is not new to North Carolinians who have been politically engaged over the last decade—and their grassroots enthusiasm in diverse communities across the state promises to meet the legislature’s slow-moving coup with dogged resistance.