North Carolina’s legislative coup
In 2016, we’ve watched basic democratic norms come under greater assault than perhaps at any other time in modern American history. But what’s happened to date pales next to what is happening right now in North Carolina.
Republicans, having barely lost the governor’s mansion, have launched an anti-democratic legislative coup. In a hastily called emergency session — and with little deliberation or public review — GOP state legislators have proposed a series of antidemocratic measures that would fundamentally erode the power of Roy Cooper, the newly elected Democratic governor. The goal is simple: to use the authority of state law to ensure continued Republican political dominance.
The GOP’s power grab is both terrifying and comical in its breadth. Proposed legislation would force Cooper’s cabinet picks to be confirmed in the state Senate. Previously they were appointed without Senate confirmation.
It would reduce the number of political appointees that Cooper can chose, from 1,5000 to 300. This would reverse the Legislature’s earlier decision, when Cooper’s Republican predecessor, Pat McCrory became governor, to expand the number of appointees. It would also allow McCrory’s partisan picks to keep their jobs and become career state employees.
Cooper would be stripped of the right to appoint members to the state university’s boards of trustees — and that right would be transferred to the state Legislature, which, not surprisingly, has a Republican supermajority. That huge GOP advantage was obtained by a discriminatory and unconstitutionally drawn legislative map. A federal court has in recent weeks overturned the map and demanded it be redrawn, while also mandating a new election for the state Legislature to be held next year.
But since, apparently, North Carolina Republicans feel they haven’t done enough to rig the state’s voting system, they are now trying to radically erode Cooper’s control over state and local election boards. In perhaps the GOP’s most creative move, proposed legislation would also mandate that the board of elections be rotated between Democrats and Republicans, with Democrats having the chairmanship in odd-numbered years and the GOP in even-numbered years. Guess which years most elections in North Carolina are held?
Just in case you think that state courts can reverse these decisions, the Legislature is also considering a bill that would make it more difficult to bring cases to the state Supreme Court, which — and you guessed it — is now controlled by Democrats.
The GOP’s actions fit a familiar pattern. This is the same group of legislators that in another emergency legislative session passed HB2, the so-called transgender bathroom law, which also prevented local jurisdictions from putting in place antidiscrimination laws to protect the rights of LGBT North Carolinians.
Together with McCrory, North Carolina Republicans cut unemployment benefits and funding for early childhood education. They gave generous tax breaks to the state’s wealthiest citizens while scrapping the earned-income tax credit. Perhaps most famously, the GOP passed the most onerous voting restriction law in the country, one that was overturned by a federal court because of evidence that the legislation “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
I’ve had my hair on fire for months now about the existential threat to democracy that Donald Trump represents. We’re already seeing evidence of his authoritarian tendencies and lack of respect for democratic norms in the five weeks since he won the presidency. But what’s happening in North Carolina right now is the real deal. This is a frontal assault on democracy.
The voters of North Carolina chose Roy Cooper to be their next governor. They chose him to select his own cabinet appointees, to control state election boards, to select political appointees, and to pick trustees for the state university system. Now Republicans are seeking to reverse the will of the voters.
Perhaps the worst part of all this is that it’s legal. Republicans still control the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion until Cooper is inaugurated. But democracies don’t function merely on what political parties can do; they function on tradition and custom. They rely on cooperation and mutual respect between the two parties and recognition that certain political steps, even if legal, cross a dangerous line. The reason the Massachusetts Legislature, for example, didn’t engage in a similar maneuver after Charlie Baker won the governor’s race in 2014 is because to do so would violate the norms that ensure the smooth functioning of a democratic society.
By contrast, North Carolina Republicans seem to have no understanding of how democracy in America is supposed to work. Any move that will further their political power is, apparently, fair game. If they get away with this, it will likely embolden other Republicans to trod the same path — and if they succeed and pay no political price for their actions we may look back on this, and not Trump’s election, as the moment when democracy in America began to disappear.