In a pattern familiar throughout the South, post–Reconstruction North Carolina remained Democrat until the national party’s role in the 1960s’ Civil Rights movement led to the election of both a Republican governor and a Republican senator in 1972. Despite North Carolina’s fiercely conservative reputation, its popular vote tends to split down the middle. In 2016, for example, North Carolinians supported Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton by 50.5% to 46.7%, but elected a Democratic governor.
The Bathroom Bill
The state attracted national opprobrium in March 2016, when Republican governor Pat McCrory signed the notorious ‘bathroom bill,’ also known as HB2, into law. Responding to Charlotte ordinances in support of LGTBQ rights, HB2 blocked cities from allowing transgender individuals to use public bathrooms that correspond to the sex as which they identify. In the ensuing backlash, the National Basketball Association (NBA) moved its annual All-Star Game to New Orleans, while the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) yanked all 2016 and 2017 tournaments from North Carolina. Companies including Adidas, PayPal and Deutsche Bank cancelled projects that would have brought jobs to the state, and estimates of the total economic impact have ranged as high as $3.7 billion in lost revenue.
It was thanks in part to this controversy that Democrat Roy Cooper defeated McCrory’s 2016 bid for reelection. During McCrory’s final days in office, however, a special session of the Republican–controlled legislature – the North Carolina General Assembly – passed laws that restricted the powers of, and continue to constrain, his successor. Although the bathroom bill itself was repealed in March 2017, the issue remains live in the legislature.
A shock 2016 report by the Electoral Integrity Project, which has compared elections in more than 150 countries, declared that North Carolina was no longer a full-fledged democracy. Ranking the state’s political processes on a par with those of Iran and Venezuela, the report focused on Republican maneuvers to ensure that North Carolina's congressional delegation remains split 10-3 in their favor.
Arguing that it’s the rural hinterland rather than the liberal cities that constitute the ‘real’ North Carolina, the legislature has repeatedly redrawn Congressional districts, bisecting Democrat–leaning cities and parcelling them with outlying areas, to ensure the fewest possible Democrats are elected. In the words of David Lewis, the Republican representative responsible, ‘I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats, so I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.’ Democrats in Asheville highlighted the situation in 2017 by staging a 5km Gerrymander Run, which followed the convoluted line that divides the city in two.
Federal courts have condemned the policy as ‘motivated by invidious partisan intent.' In 2018, the Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court on a legal technicality, so the issue will remain unresolved before the November 2018 election.
The day after a Supreme Court decision in 2013 that removed the requirement for any state introducing new voting laws to first seek federal approval, the North Carolina General Assembly set about crafting House Bill 589. This textbook ‘voter suppression’ measure set out to reduce black participation in state elections by outlawing practices most prevalent among black voters, such as same-day registration and voting in the wrong precinct but the right county. Following a lower court ruling that it targeted North Carolina’s black population ‘with almost surgical precision,’ the bill was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2017.
In Charlotte, the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in September 2016, and the subsequent decision not to prosecute the officer responsible, sparked night-time rioting that resulted in a further death. One of the most prominent local activists in the ensuing Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Braxton Winston, was elected to the city council in 2017. Those elections also gave Charlotte its first female African American mayor, Vi Lyles.
Controversy continues to surround North Carolina’s crop of around 120 Confederate monuments, most of which were erected during the early-20th-century heyday of 'Jim Crow' racial repression. Governor Cooper has requested that three separate monuments on the grounds of the state capitol in Raleigh be moved to another site, but a 2015 law forbids the removal of monuments from public property without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission. This has caused individuals to take matters into their own hands. In 2017, a statue of Robert E Lee was removed from the campus of Duke University and protesters toppled a 1924 monument to ‘the boys who wore the gray’ in downtown Durham. In August 2018, a statue of a Confederate soldier, known as ‘Silent Sam,’ on the University of North Carolina (UNC) campus in Chapel Hill, was also taken down by protestors.