The myths on redistricting


Gerrymandering is bad. North Carolina needs to reform its process of drawing election maps, a process known as redistricting.

Still, some recurring themes in the current debate over redistricting reform paint an inaccurate picture. Frequent references to those themes suggest that some people pushing for redistricting reform today are more interested in playing partisan politics than in guaranteeing bipartisan or nonpartisan reform.

First, there’s an implication that Republicans who drew the state’s election maps in 2011 bear sole responsibility for North Carolina’s crazy-looking election districts. Without Republican gerrymandering, the argument goes, North Carolina would have more compact, sensible, competitive districts. History suggests otherwise.

Second, it’s implied at times that Republican gerrymandering represents a new element in North Carolina politics. Former Democratic legislator Margaret Dickson suggests as much in a documentary scene highlighted recently on the Raleigh News & Observer‘s website: “People feel like they’ve lost control of the process, and in some ways they have. The redistricting is being done by people far away. The advertising is being produced and paid for by people far away — people we will never know. I wish we could go back to the time when the voters chose their legislators instead of legislators choosing their voters through the redistricting process.”

Asked “How hopeful are you that we could get back to that?” Dickson responds: “I think the pendulum will swing back, but it’s a question of how long that takes and, in my view, … how much damage is done between now and then.”

These statements are worth exploring in detail.

“People feel like they’ve lost control of the process, and in some ways they have.” The people of North Carolina have just as much control over the redistricting process now as they have for decades. They elect legislators who draw the election maps.

It’s a flawed process. But it’s the same process that’s been in place for as long as anyone in North Carolina politics has been around. The only people who have lost control of the process are legislative Democrats, who no longer hold majorities to help them gerrymander districts in their favor.

“The redistricting is being done by people far away. The advertising is being produced and paid for by people far away — people we will never know.” If Raleigh is far away, then Dickson is correct. Redistricting is conducted now, as it has been for years, by legislative leaders assembled in the state capital. Yes, these legislative leaders have help from experts, including experts from out of state. But the decisions are made in North Carolina by North Carolinians.

As for advertising, outside production and outside funding of political ads have been common elements of N.C. politics for many years.

“I wish we could go back to the time when the voters chose their legislators instead of legislators choosing their voters through the redistricting process.” Ah, yes, Dickson alludes to some mythical time when voters chose their legislators rather than the reverse. To be clear, I wholeheartedly support the idea of voters choosing their legislators, rather than legislators choosing their voters. I’ve said as much — multiple times — in news conferences promoting bipartisan legislation to reform the redistricting process.

The problem with Dickson’s statement is that North Carolina never has had such a system. The party in power always has abused the redistricting process. That’s why redistricting reform efforts date back decades.

It’s arguable that Democratic gerrymanders in past years were worse, in terms of their practical impacts. Multiple elections in the last decade of Democratic rule gave Republicans the majority of votes in legislative elections while Democrats won actual control of the legislative chambers.

The GOP won the majority of the popular vote in N.C. House elections in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006. Democrats maintained control of the House after each election (including a coalition with a minority of Republicans after the 2002 election). Republicans also topped Democrats in total N.C. Senate votes in 2002 and 2004, while Democrats maintained control of that chamber after both elections.

It’s unclear what time Dickson wants to return to, unless she’s talking about the time when Democrats ran the General Assembly regardless of the way North Carolinians cast their ballots.

“I think the pendulum will swing back, but it’s a question of how long that takes and, in my view, … how much damage is done between now and then.” Dickson could have responded to the question with a statement about the public growing increasingly aware of problems linked to gerrymandering. Or she could have suggested that legislators in both parties are starting to see the benefits of reform. Either option would have presented the impression that she’s interested in a reform process that would reduce the likelihood of electoral map-making shenanigans — whoever’s in charge of the General Assembly.

Instead, it’s hard to interpret her response about the swinging pendulum as anything other than a former Democratic legislator’s desire to return North Carolina government to Democratic Party rule.

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Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.

Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.

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