Gerrymandering is defined as the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one party, or the result thereof. Election maps drawn by the North Carolina General Assembly have been the subject of numerous court challenges. Now, the legislature wants to redraw some of the state’s judicial districts, as well.
Leadership Asheville Forum brought Common Cause of North Carolina executive director Bob Phillips of Raleigh, N.C. to address the continuing battle over redistricting in the state.
According to their website, Common Cause North Carolina is dedicated to strengthening democracy and making government more open, honest and accountable. “We believe that today’s big money culture subverts our founding principle: government of, for, and by the people. In response, we advocate–in the legislature, in the media, and in the public square–for reforms that restore public confidence in government and its representatives. Specifically, we seek to curb undue special interest influence, promote ethics in government, and connect underrepresented voters to the democratic process.”
Phillips opened with two quotes, the first by President Barack Obama on the occasion of his 2016 State of the Union Address, “We have to get the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.” The other quote was from Ronald Regan in 1987, “All we’re asking for [is] an end to the anti-democratic and un-American practice of gerrymandering congressional districts. The fact is gerrymandering has become a national scandal.”
Phillips said that gerrymandering is terrible, unless your party happens to have the power of the majority. “We care not about the outcome of what an election is going to deliver, but the process. And what we clearly have in North Carolina is a redistricting process that is not fair,” he said.
In North Carolina, and across the country according to Phillips, our elections are preordained. “In other words, we already know what the outcome for most of the elections will be before the election. Lines are drawn to advance a political party.” As an example, he said the margin of victory for the 13 winning congressional candidates in 2016 was about 25 points, with some as high as 50 points. “Ninety percent of the legislative candidates in 2016 either ran completely uncontested or won their race by a double-digit margin.”
Phillips then made two points that should be important to all voters. First, when we have preordained districts a lot of things happen that are not healthy for our democracy. “Essentially, people have no choice on election day. Your vote counts, but it doesn’t really feel like it when you already know who is going to win.”
Secondly, candidates on both sides of the aisle have told Phillips that when they’re in districts they don’t have competition. “They don’t have to work as hard. They know they don’t have to listen as much to ‘we the people.’ And that’s the biggest problem in my mind about what gerrymandering does, our inability to hold our elected leaders accountable.”
If you add up all the statewide votes in the 2016 elections, the breakdown was 53 percent Republican, and 47 percent Democrat. “Yet the majority party has about 77 percent of the congressional seats, and about 70 percent of the legislative seats, so it’s not really in line with who North Carolina is.”
Phillips said the problem with primary elections is that it’s mostly the party activists that come out to vote. “They’re good folks, and I’m glad they’re participating, but they tend to be the extremes of both parties, Republicans more extreme to the right and Democrats more extreme to the left. Once you pass that hurdle, generally, these folks are in. They have minimal competition if any. They come to Washington if they’re in congress, or they come to Raleigh if they’re in the legislature, and they have no incentive to try to get along with each other.”
Phillips sees this as a contributing factor to the lack of stability we see in Washington and in Raleigh. He said working as a reporter in the 1990s he saw more civility than he sees now in Raleigh and in congress. “It’s certainly true. There’s a bit of mean-spiritedness even, a bit of a vindictive mood that is sometimes pervasive there. ‘Compromise’ has become a bad word in many cases.” Moderates, he said, are often lost in primary elections. “This is a function of what gerrymandering has done to our democracy.”
House Bill 2 is an example of how gerrymandering affects policies. “Ninety percent of the legislators who voted for HB2 either ran uncontested, or won their election by a double-digit margin before that vote came up in March of 2016. They could not be held accountable in their own districts.” The thoughtful debate this issue warranted never happened before the vote.
How do we stop the problems gerrymandering creates? “Take politics out of process. If we make the districts compact, of equal population, contiguous, adhere to the Voting Rights Act, and have some independent body except the legislature draw them, we think we’ll have a better outcome.” Phillips said, “Lawmakers should not draw their own districts, it’s the fox guarding the henhouse.”
By Mark-Ellis Bennett