Sat. Sep 23rd, 2023

The Museum of the Albemarle, on the eastern shore of North Carolina, is a spacious building the color of sand and sea glass. It’s in Elizabeth City, about as far from the Research Triangle as Baltimore is from New York City, but you can get there and back in the same day if you know how to drive fast without getting pulled over. “There are a hundred counties in this state, and I’ve spent time in every one,” Sailor Jones, a democracy activist, told me this past fall, on his way to speak at the museum. He was a skillful multitasker—sipping from a huge fountain Coke, tweaking a Rihanna-heavy playlist, and taking call after call on speakerphone, all while bombing his Toyota 4Runner down an empty stretch of highway bisecting a cotton farm. Jones is forty-eight, with sandy hair and a round face; he grew up in northeastern North Carolina, a rural, working-class part of the state. “When I tell people I was born in a tobacco field, I’m only exaggerating, like, a tiny bit,” he said. He is white, but he’s from a county that is, like Elizabeth City, majority Black. “If you’re used to the powers that be either passively ignoring you or actively screwing you over, for generations, it’s natural to hear about some new nefarious thing they’re up to and think, Same shit, different day,” he said. “The challenge for us, messaging-wise, is to find a way to tell folks, You’re not wrong, but, also, this one really is different.”

“This one” was Moore v. Harper, a Supreme Court case that was set to be argued in December and resolved by the end of June. In 2021, with Tim Moore as the speaker of the North Carolina House, the majority-Republican legislature drew gerrymandered congressional maps—that is, even more egregiously gerrymandered than usual. Several voters (one of them named Becky Harper) and a handful of nonprofits (including Common Cause, where Jones works) sued to block the implementation of those maps, and the state Supreme Court ruled in their favor. The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the legislature’s maps should stand—and, by extension, whether the state court had the power to review them at all. As with many Supreme Court cases, this is a narrow-sounding question that could have vast consequences. “It’s hard to overstate how wild it would be if this went the wrong way,” Marina Jenkins, the executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, told me.

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