Republican legislative majorities took yet another stab at enacting new congressional districts last week (the state constitution gives the Governor no veto authority in this realm) and, for those who didn’t dig below the surface, it would have been easy to get the misimpression from some reports that things had gone well.
Raleigh’s News & Observer featured the headline: “Democrats could pick up seats in Congress under proposed North Carolina map.” NPR went with “Democrats Could Gain At Least 2 House Seats Under New N.C. Redistricting Plan.” The Washington Post headline read: “Democrats would likely gain two seats under new congressional map approved by North Carolina legislature.”
Now add to the mix the fact that these news stories were running at more or less the same time as other reports detailing the state Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a recent legislative overhaul of state Senate and House maps, and it would be unsurprising if many North Carolinians had come to the conclusion that the state’s chronically broken redistricting process had finally, mercifully, been repaired.
Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, if ever there was a single act that confirmed, once and for all, the utter folly of allowing state legislators to remain the decision makers in North Carolina’s political redistricting process, this most recent redraw should be it.
For while it appears to be true that the maps Republicans produced last week at a state court’s direction would likely shrink their current lopsided state congressional delegation majority from 10-3 to 8-5 during the 2020 election, this is hardly grounds for celebration.
After all, what’s worse: a) a process in which a legislative majority openly admits that it’s taking every possible opportunity to gain a partisan advantage (as Republicans did a few years back when chief mapmaker Rep. David Lewis stated that the only reason they were passing a map that guaranteed the GOP a 10-3 delegation advantage was because they couldn’t figure out how to draw a map that made it 11-2), or b) one in which the majority claims to have reformed its gerrymandering ways, but still dishonestly cranks out another hyper-partisan clunker?
Option “B” was, of course, what we saw in North Carolina last week. Just weeks after having redrawn state legislative maps in an imperfect but decidedly more open fashion than past years, Republican leaders seized on the relative lack of specific court directives in the congressional case and allowed the process to regress dramatically. No wonder Democrats are taking the matter back to court.
As government watchdog Bob Phillips of Common Cause observed in a statement:
A poor audio feed and stationary cameras located far away from legislators were not sufficient to claim transparency. What’s more, some lawmakers who were engaged in map-drawing frequently left and returned to the committee room without explanation. And a single public hearing held mid-morning on a weekday in Raleigh did not allow for people across the state to meaningfully comment on proposed voting districts.”
Simply put, Republican leaders didn’t engage in an adequate or genuine effort to draw fair maps. Instead, they tried to push the envelope as far as they thought they could get away with and produced maps almost sure to give the GOP 62% of the congressional delegation in a deeply purple state in which just 29.9% of voters are registered Republicans and 36.8% are registered Democrats.
More to the point, if the map drawing were truly done in a fair way, it shouldn’t be possible to so easily predict a year ahead of the next election exactly what the results will be. While it’s true that North Carolinians are, like most of their fellow Americans, increasingly divided up into geographic camps (e.g. rural vs. urban) that match their politics, the goal still needs to be to create as many districts as possible that are truly competitive – districts in which candidates must compete for votes after the March primary.
And, of course, both truck-sized failings in the latest redistricting effort serve to reinforce the ultimate point – namely, that there is no way for legislators of any political party to be trusted with such a task. Even if lawmakers are theoretically forbidden from considering certain information (like race or party), it’s silly to pretend that such political animals can really put such matters out of their minds
As Bob Phillips points out:
A half-dozen bills have been filed in this year’s legislative session that would establish nonpartisan redistricting, including several with strong bipartisan support. However, none of the proposals has been brought to a vote in the General Assembly. That’s despite overwhelming public support for reform, as shown by a survey last month from Public Policy Polling that found 62% of North Carolina voters in favor of nonpartisan redistricting, with just 9% opposed.”
The bottom line: It’s long past time for gerrymandering to end. North Carolina needs to establish an independent, nonpartisan commission to draw its legislative and congressional maps and the latest gerrymandered congressional map ought to be the last straw in making it happen.