Partisan redistricting cheats half of voters of representation
Summary of recent North Carolina newspaper editorials
Friday, August 11, 2017
North Carolina voters recently got less than half a loaf from three federal judges. The decision was just one more step in tweaking an election system that is hopelessly broken.
The judges ordered the General Assembly to finish redrawing legislative districts by September. But they rejected pleas for a special election, which means the unconstitutional districts will remain in force through the 2018 elections.
The panel ruled in August 2016 that 28 state House and Senate districts were illegally drawn based on racial considerations. Republican lawmakers have said they’ll have to alter two-thirds of the General Assembly’s 170 districts while fixing the 28 cited.
The idea was to cram as many African-Americans, who mostly vote for Democrats, into as few districts as possible, increasing Republicans’ chances of winning other districts. The concept of creating so-called majority-minority districts to increase African-American representation has been upheld, but this time the GOP crammed too much, the judges said.
Gerrymandering is as old as, well, Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor who in 1812 signed a state redistricting bill that created one district shaped somewhat like a salamander. Both parties have practiced it diligently, in North Carolina and elsewhere. What has changed is the advent of technology that makes it possible to gerrymander much more efficiently.
How efficiently? The two parties are roughly equal in North Carolina, as shows by the close gubernatorial race last year. Yet, Republicans control 10 of 13 seats in the U.S. House, 74 of 120 N.C. House seats and 35 of 50 seats in the N.C. Senate.
Quite simply, the effect of the most recent court ruling is to leave half of North Carolina’s people effectively without a voice in state government until 2019. We understand the cost and confusion that would result from multiple elections next year, but the price is little enough to pay for fair representation.
In the long run, however, the only answer is to take districting out of the hands of those who benefit from how the lines are drawn. The Iowa example is instructive here.
In 1980, Iowa set up an independent five-member Legislative Services Agency to draw the lines for legislative and congressional districts. The majority and minority leaders of each house of the Iowa legislature pick one member apiece and those four pick the fifth.
The districts must be “convenient and contiguous,” they must “preserve the integrity of political subdivisions like counties and cities” and they must “to the extent consistent with other requirements, (be) reasonably compact.”
The maps are presented to the legislature, which may approve or reject the bill without altering it (the legislature can provide feedback). If the legislature rejects the plan, the LSA must draft a second proposal. If the legislature rejects the second proposal, the LSA must draft a third, and final, set of maps. If the legislature rejects this plan, it may then approve its own maps.
Since the implementation of this process, the state legislature has never chosen not to approve an LSA proposal, or to alter the law.
When Democrats controlled the General Assembly, Republicans wanted an independent commission and Democrats did not. Now, Democrats want one and Republicans don’t.
Well, not all Republicans. Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville was prime sponsor of a House bill this year to set up an Iowa-style system in North Carolina. Neither that bill nor a Senate companion went anywhere. All of Buncombe’s four Democratic legislators were on board.
We hope McGrady renews his efforts next year and get enough of his fellow Republicans on board so that voters in the future can get a full loaf.