For most of the 20th century, North Carolina was known as the most progressive of Southern states. Good roads, good schools, a relative willingness to address issues of poverty and racism (compared to other Southern states), and a healthy business climate led to a high standard of living for most of its residents. Recent years have seen a turnaround in that. For instance, North Carolina’s schools rank in the bottom 10 states on such measures as average teacher salary ($10,000 less than the national average) and amount spent per pupil. The infrastructure is stressed. More than 1.7 million of the state’s 10 million inhabitants live in poverty. In a state where tobacco still brings in a lot of revenue, these figures can be disheartening.
The state legislature, with a solid right-wing majority, has continued its assault on the working class’ standard of living. In 2013, the state’s funding for education was $535 million less, adjusted for inflation, than in 2008. The legislature, with the willing support of Republican former governor Pat McCrory, did not accept the available Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, leaving over 300,000 North Carolinians without insurance.
And then there’s the infamous HB2, the so-called “Bathroom Bill” whose most notorious provision require transgender citizens to use the restroom that accords with the gender on their birth certificate. Additional important elements of the bill include eliminates state claims for termination on the basis of race, national origin, ethnicity, gender, veteran status, etc. It eliminated the ability for cities in North Carolina to enact family leave and minimum wage ordinances. All of this was enacted in one day, from enrolling the bill to passage and the Governor’s signature, without public comment. The backlash caused businesses, tourists and sports events to change plans that would have brought an estimated $395 million into the state. It promoted a national backlash that made North Carolina a laughing-stock in the media and raised fear for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians and their families who were directly or indirectly targeted by this legislation.
Not having learned their lesson about how going into a special session and enacting draconian legislation turns out so badly, the Republicans doubled down in December. In a special session called to meet the needs of those harmed by Hurricane Matthew in the East and huge wildfires in the western portion of the state, the legislature then proceeded to conduct business that would reduce incoming Democratic governor Roy Cooper’s authority, to put the Republican party in control of election boards in even-numbered years (the years that voting takes place), and cut the number of civil servants appointed by the governor from 1,500 to 300. All of this reversed practices that have been customary in North Carolina for decades.
Much of this trend was fueled by the Republican redrawing of congressional and legislative electoral districts in 2011. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the districts had targeted African-American citizens “with surgical precision” to suppress their vote. The court ordered that districts be re-drawn and new elections held in 2017, without the gerrymandering.
In reviewing these events, researchers Reynolds and Elklit used the same methods they have employed in 213 elections in 153 countries. Their work in the Electoral Integrity Project is seen by many as the most accurate way to evaluate the fairness of elections in different locales.
The electoral integrity score of 58/100 puts North Carolina only slightly ahead of what are called “failed democracies” in the developing world. On the measures of legal framework and voter suppression, North Carolina ranks alongside Iran.
Reynolds, in an article on the McClatchyDC website, stated “The extent to which North Carolina now breaches these principles means our state government can no longer be classified as a full democracy…. We need to put aside the complacent hyperbole and accept that in North Carolina we no longer live in a functioning democracy worth its name. We have become one of those struggling developing world states that needs to claw its way slowly toward democratic integrity.”
Being classified in the same terms as one of the “banana republics” is not a distinction North Carolinians can be proud of. This “Tobacco Republic” mentality damages the daily lives and dignity of the poor and working class in general, and African-Americans in particular. Waiting for the new districts and the 2017 election is not enough. Direct actions, such as the 2017 Moral March on Raleigh to be held on February 11, are needed to show the legislature that they do not have the support of the people of the state.