North Carolina’s legislative and congressional districts are ensnared in several court fights, and a conference sponsored by Common Cause examined a host of issues surrounding those battles.
But the conference, at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy in early March, focused on raising public awareness of perceived problems surrounding gerrymandering — and encouraging even more lawsuits — rather than discussing strategies to persuade lawmakers to enact “fairer” districts.
The conference, “Redistricting Reform: Mapping Our Future,” brought in experts from politics and academia to look at various angles of the issue from a nationwide perspective, with little talk about North Carolina.
“We have a problem. You’re here because you care about the problem,” said keynote speaker Tom Ross, former University of North Carolina system president who is now serving as a Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow at Duke. “Fixing this problem is more important than anything we can do to help democracy survive as long as I do.”
But before tackling that problem, the bigger issue is few people understand redistricting or care about it, speakers said.
“People have less knowledge about this than almost any area of reform,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, a Democratic public opinion and political strategy research firm. “There are a huge number of people who have no idea what we’re talking about. It’s only when the state gets in trouble that people know what’s going on.”
With a lack of voter knowledge, it’s crucial that information is presented in a nonpartisan manner — a tough bid in today’s political climate.
“The messaging does have to take account of more than just criticism of ‘evil Republicans’ in this state or other states,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, which for years has backed nonpartisan redistricting reform. “The system is bad and it needs to be replaced.”
Whether North Carolina is — as the pollster Lake put it, “in trouble” — has been debated for decades. The debate has intensified since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010 and redrew both the legislative and congressional districts.
One area that was barely explored during the conference was the notion that elections have consequences, and that the political party that wins a majority of legislative seats may have a legitimate claim to draw election maps to their favor, so long as they don’t violate legal or constitutional mandates.
Challenges to North Carolina’s legislative and congressional districts continue in the courts, and Common Cause — the conference’s host — is a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the latest congressional maps.
Court challenges have taken two legal paths. Either they try to prove that majority parties draw districts in ways that put partisan advantage over the principle of one person, one vote — partisan gerrymandering — or that they illegally attempt to limit the representation of racial or ethnic groups in legislative bodies — racial gerrymandering.
On the former front, even though federal courts have not defined when partisan gerrymandering goes so far as to disenfranchise voters, a League of Women Voters’ lawsuit relies on a controversial new concept: the “efficiency gap,” a statistic that recently prompted a federal court to throw out legislative districts in Wisconsin.
Measuring the efficiency gap means tallying the number of “wasted votes” on each side. For the winners in a district, that’s the total votes beyond what was needed for victory. For the losing side, it’s the total number of votes cast. Then, for each party, you divide the wasted votes by the total number of votes cast. That yields a rough measure of vote efficiency for each party.
Simon Jackman, a professor at the Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations, told conference attendees North Carolina has an “efficiency gap” of -0.19, which, given the current political situation, represents “a profound disadvantage for Democrats.”
Jackman called North Carolina’s efficiency gap “egregious” and that he’s eager to have judges consider its impact on voters.
“We’ve got pretty good evidence to suggest that partisan control of redistricting has been a big driver as to how we’re getting the scores that we’re getting,” Jackman said.
While the efficiency gap is supposedly an objective standard by which to prove partisan gerrymandering, critics have noted the gap fails to account for voters’ shifting preferences and the changes in issues from one election to the next. It also doesn’t take note of candidates who win support from voters across party lines.
Meantime, other panelists sought to make the case that racial gerrymandering is alive and well in North Carolina.
Allison Riggs, a staff attorney focusing on voting rights and environmental justice for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said her organization approaches redistricting litigation with “an unapologetically racially focused lens.
“We need to use litigation in states like North Carolina and Texas, where the legislatures aren’t willing to give up power,” Riggs said. “When we see changing tactics, it’s always with an eye toward harming communities of color. We weave that into our narrative so that the court understands this is a cynical use of the Voting Rights Act.
During his keynote speech, Ross acknowledged that while North Carolina has been a “leader in the South in many ways, one of them is not redistricting,” citing a Washington Post story that described the state as the “poster child for gerrymandering.”
As that comment drew laughter, Ross’ comments quickly took on a dark tone, warning that gerrymandered districts were a threat to democracy itself.
“I gave a speech to students and I told them I wasn’t sure democracy would outlive me,” Ross said. “I’ve never doubted democracy would be there.”
Which it’s why it’s urgent that gerrymandering be fixed, Ross said. But before students want to know how to fix it, he said, they want to know whom to blame.
“You can blame the Republicans,” Ross said. “You can blame the Democrats. They’re equally guilty. I was a judge for 17 years and I know guilty.”
Ross’ message of bipartisan blame echoed the message JLF’s Kokai believes should be sent to voters.
“The message shouldn’t be Democrats versus Republicans,” Kokai said. “It should be elites taking advantage of the system to benefit themselves.”