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Republican legislatures flex muscles to maintain power in two closely divided states

by Chloe Baker
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Power Struggles

In 2020, North Carolina exemplified a closely divided swing state, with former President Donald Trump narrowly clinching victory over Democrat Joe Biden by a margin slightly exceeding one percentage point. Simultaneously, the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, secured re-election with a relatively comfortable lead of 5 points.

However, despite this apparent equilibrium, it is the Republican Party that currently wields significant influence within the state. This shift in power stems from recent gains in legislative seats by the GOP and their assertive policy stances. They have managed to enact changes in voting procedures, often in opposition to Democrats, and are currently considering a vote that would curtail the governor’s authority over the administration of the state’s elections. In both instances, Republican supermajorities in the legislature are expected to override any gubernatorial vetoes.

These substantial changes mirror similar power moves made by the Republican-dominated legislative majority in Wisconsin, another closely contested state where the GOP has experienced defeats in various statewide elections. In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers are making efforts to remove the state’s nonpartisan elections director from office and are contemplating the impeachment of a recently elected justice in the state Supreme Court. This judicial shift to a liberal majority could potentially challenge the Republican gerrymandering that has bolstered the party’s dominance in the state legislature. Despite the fact that Wisconsin voters have chosen Democrats for nearly all partisan statewide executive offices, Republicans are striving to maintain their grip on power.

While both political parties have engaged in gerrymandering to some extent, the situations in North Carolina and Wisconsin extend beyond mere redistricting disputes. They serve as stark illustrations of how Republicans are striving to retain authority irrespective of their level of popular support. These maneuvers could result in the GOP wielding disproportionate influence over crucial matters, including partisan redistricting and the certification of the upcoming presidential election.

According to political scientist Chris Cooper from Western Carolina University, the fact that these states are considered purple or closely divided politically ironically fuels the aggressive political tactics seen in Wisconsin and North Carolina. In these states, Republican politicians feel compelled to act decisively to safeguard their hold on power.

The geographic distribution of party supporters during statehouse elections plays a significant role in these dynamics. Democrats tend to concentrate in specific urban areas, such as Milwaukee and Madison in Wisconsin, and Charlotte and the Raleigh-Durham region in North Carolina. This concentration makes it more likely that legislative districts encompassing urban areas, even if fairly drawn, will have an overwhelming number of Democratic voters. Consequently, fewer Democratic voters remain to compete in other districts, giving Republicans an advantage in the remaining seats.

In North Carolina, despite a nearly even split in the congressional delegation last year, Republicans managed to secure close to a supermajority of seats in the state legislature. They solidified this supermajority when a Democratic House member switched parties this year. Notably, less than 15% of precincts statewide were considered competitive in 2022.

The Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly initially attempted to redraw districts in a way that favored them even more, but their plan was invalidated by the Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court as an illegal gerrymander. However, Republicans now hold the majority on the court and appear poised to redraw districts more aggressively to further favor their party in the upcoming years, potentially securing their supermajority status for several election cycles.

These changes coincide with the legislature’s passage of two election bills. These bills are partly propelled by lingering beliefs among Republican voters that baseless claims of voter fraud contributed to Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election. One of the bills would eliminate the state’s three-day grace period for mailed ballots received after Election Day and modify poll-watching rules in a way that raises concerns about voter intimidation.

The other bill has even more profound implications. It would strip the governor of the authority to appoint members to the state election board and transfer that power to the legislature. Advocates of this bill argue that having leaders from both major parties select an equal number of board members would promote bipartisan decision-making and consensus on election policies. However, critics argue that an evenly split board would lead to gridlock, potentially allowing the Republican-controlled legislature or the Republican-dominated courts to settle disputes, including those related to the next presidential election.

Furthermore, this legislation could lead to the removal of the state’s respected elections director just months before the presidential election, despite there being no widespread issues or concerns regarding voting in North Carolina under her tenure.

In response to these developments, Chris Cooper, the political scientist, voiced his opposition, emphasizing that these moves are not about election security but solely about consolidating and expanding power for Republicans.

Republicans, on the other hand, contend that the legislature should have more oversight over various regulatory functions, including voting. They argue that a bill vetoed by Governor Cooper, which would diminish his appointment powers to boards responsible for areas like electricity rates, environmental policies, and road construction, is a step towards balanced governance.

This debate reflects a long-standing theme in North Carolina’s governance, with its historically strong legislature and a comparatively weak governor. It’s worth noting that the state’s governor only gained veto power in 1997, setting North Carolina apart from states with three co-equal branches of government.

In contrast, Wisconsin’s political landscape has shifted considerably, with the Legislature becoming more confrontational towards the Democratic governor, Tony Evers, since Republicans secured control in 2010. Gerrymandered maps guaranteeing GOP control of both legislative chambers have contributed to this confrontational dynamic. Republican lawmakers have blocked many of Evers’ appointees to state boards, and recent actions, such as attempting to remove the nonpartisan election director and threatening to impeach a newly elected justice, illustrate the depth of partisan divisions in Wisconsin politics.

As the situation continues to evolve, the debate over the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, as well as the fairness of electoral processes, remains at the forefront of political discourse in these closely contested states.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Power Struggles

What are the key political developments in North Carolina and Wisconsin mentioned in the text?

In North Carolina, despite a closely divided electorate, the Republican Party has gained significant legislative power and is enacting voting changes over Democratic objections. They are also considering a move to strip the governor of election-related authority. In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers are making efforts to remove the nonpartisan election director and have threatened to impeach a newly elected justice, reflecting their confrontational approach to state governance.

How does the geographic distribution of party supporters affect political dynamics in these states?

Both states have urban areas where Democrats are concentrated, potentially leading to an overload of Democratic voters in legislative districts covering these areas. This leaves fewer Democratic voters to compete in other districts, giving Republicans an advantage in those seats.

What is the significance of the state Supreme Courts in North Carolina and Wisconsin?

In both states, the composition of the state Supreme Court is crucial. Changes in court majorities, with Republicans gaining control in North Carolina and Democrats in Wisconsin, have implications for issues like redistricting and the balance of power between branches of government.

What are the implications of the proposed election bills in North Carolina?

The proposed bills in North Carolina could impact election rules and the authority to oversee elections. One bill aims to eliminate the three-day grace period for mailed ballots received after Election Day and modifies poll-watching rules. Another potentially strips the governor’s power to appoint members to the state election board, transferring that authority to the legislature, which raises concerns about potential gridlock.

How do these developments reflect broader concerns about democracy and power?

These cases illustrate how parties, in this case, the Republican Party, are making strategic moves to maintain power, even when they face challenges in statewide elections. This goes beyond redistricting and raises questions about the health of democratic processes and the balance of power between branches of government.

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