Latest Gerrymandering Dispute Motivates Non-Partisan Movement
Republican lawmakers didn’t hide their agenda in approving North Carolina’s new congressional district maps last week. Representative David Lewis helped draw the maps and told a legislative hearing last week: “We believe this map will produce an opportunity to elect 10 Republican members of Congress.”
Of course, Republicans had to redraw the maps because a federal court ruled the 1st and 12th districts were illegally gerrymandered along racial lines.
Supporters of non-partisan redistricting are trying to take advantage of the controversy. They say it’s another example of why there’s a need for a new and fairer system.
For decades when they ruled North Carolina, Democrats drew district maps to their advantage. Since Republicans took over in 2011, they’ve been doing the same, aided by technology and with increasing chutzpah.
Gerrymandering is a political fact of life, and that ticks off many voters.
“The promise of democracy is that every single one of us should every single day should have a chance to participate in the future of our country,” Charlottean Harry Taylor said when he spoke at a February 15th hearing in Charlotte on the new Congressional maps. “And by rigging votes, which is what gerrymandering does, by rigging votes, you’re taking that opportunity away from vast parts of the population of this country.”
Taylor knows a little something about gerrymandering. A Democrat, he twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the Republican-heavy 9th District. Since then, he’s been an activist for redistricting reform, and even wrote a book on the subject – “You Can’t Get There from Here.”
One potential solution - an independent redistricting commission – was on the mind of Scott Huffman of Charlotte.
“As a former veteran, I hope and expect you to form an independent commission. That way we can establish fair districts. That way, everybody’s vote counts,” he said.
The new maps unveiled last week make big changes in North Carolina’s Congressional districts. They’re less spread out, touch fewer counties, and reduce the concentration of African Americans in the 1st and 12th districts, the two that were challenged in federal court.
State Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican from Wake County, calls the new districts legally “clean as a whistle.” But he sympathizes with disenchanted voters.
“Legally is not the only criteria. I think people would have more confidence in the fairness of the process if the process was changed,” Stam says.
Stam is a longtime advocate of non-partisan redistricting, filing a half-dozen bills since 1989, none of which ever became law.
Jane Pinsky has been working on the issue for the past nine years as director of the North Carolina Coalition for Government and Lobbying Reform. She thinks the recent federal court ruling gives new momentum to the fair redistricting movement.
“We believe that with a nonpartisan, independent system, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now,” Pinsky says. “North Carolina’s had about 30 judicial interventions in slightly over 30 years, and every time it delays elections, it costs us money, it creates uncertainty. That’s just not something we need, and we think now is the moment to talk about future redistricting.”
Pinsky says the current system leaves too much room for what she calls “political acts” by incumbents.
“It’s like the fox guarding the henhouse. It’s in their interests to draw districts that keep themselves and their parties in power,” she says. “That is not necessarily in the interest of all of us who are North Carolinians.”
While Congressional Districts are getting the attention now, Pinsky says the process also needs to be changed for statehouse districts - many of which aren’t competitive.
This year 54 General Assembly candidates face no opposition - in primaries or the general election. That’s out of 120 House and 50 Senate seats.
“When districts aren’t competitive, then candidates don’t have to work to get people’s votes, and they end up not caring about what their constituents think,” Pinsky says.
The big question is how to fix the system.
One idea is to let an independent commission draw Congressional district lines – as is done in several western states.
Another, which Representative Stam now favors, would have nonpartisan state staffers draw maps using neutral criteria. For example, districts would have to be compact and contiguous, and take into account “communities of interest.” Once the commission draws a new map, lawmakers could either reject or approve the plan, but not amend it.
That’s how it’s been done in Iowa since 1980. Pinsky also likes that approach.
“The one thing we’d change is we think you need citizen input before the maps are starting to be drawn, because people really know their own communities best,” she says.
"Citizen voices are what’s being lost with the current system," said Tom Ross. He’s the former head of the UNC system, now at Duke University on a fellowship studying redistricting reform.
“I believe deeply in our democracy and our form of government, and I truly believe that fixing this problem is something we’ve got to do,” Ross says. “If we don’t, I think over time our democracy will erode. People will have less and less confidence in our form of government. And that ... that scares me a great deal.”
Most voters want change, says political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College.
“I think there’s probably general agreement among a majority of voters to say that we need to do something different when it comes to redistricting, to allow the voters to actually pick their politicians and officials rather than elected officials picking their voters,” Bitzer says.
“The practical reality of it, however, is that those in power are not willing to give up power.”
Just look at what happened before Republicans took over the statehouse in 2011. Democrats were still in control and Stam says they rejected his call for a nonpartisan redistricting deal.
“I recall very well in 2009 offering this to the Democrats, and specifically told them this is your chance. You don’t know who’s gonna win. But they were so sure they were going to win they decided to roll the dice,” Stam says.
And even if change does come, Stam warns it may not - alone - solve political divisions.
“I would say it would be a good idea, a progressive idea, a sound idea, but don’t think that you’re going to save the republic by redistricting,” he says.
Redistricting won’t alter our two-party system, which is a direct result of our first-across-the-finish-line elections, says Josh Putnam, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. (Duverger’s Law, he calls it, in political scientist speak.)
To guarantee representation for groups outside the Democratic and Republican parties, we’d need a new system, Putnam says.
“The alternative would be to look at a more proportional representational system, like some of the parliamentary systems in Europe. That would help to create a system with more than two parties,” Putnam says.
Nobody’s talking about that.
As for nonpartisan redistricting, Stam doesn’t think a bill will come up again at the legislature until 2017. Whenever it happens, he won’t be there to support it – he’s stepping down at the end his term this year.