RALEIGH – For decades, Republican lawmakers in Raleigh complained that their numbers were kept artificially low by Democratic gerrymanders. For decades, many supported reforms of the redistricting process in North Carolina to improve voter information, foster competition, and break up the insularity of the state’s political class.
Then, in 2010, the GOP overcame a Democratic-skewed electoral map and other barriers, thanks to favorable national trends, unprecedented success at candidate recruitment and fundraising, and the unpopularity of Democratic tax increases and politicians. For the first time since the 19th century, Republicans took control of both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly.
They will now feel a temptation to try to use the redistricting process to keep themselves in power. They should resist it, both on principle and political grounds.
The principle is straightforward: voters must retain ultimate sovereignty in any representative government. Because American polities are organized around winner-take-all districts, rather than a parliamentary system of proportional representation, policymakers should avoid drawing district maps that create large gaps between vote totals and political power.
Electoral gerrymanders aren’t just opportunities for political mischief. They do real damage to self-government. When counties, municipalities, and other geographical communities are shredded into bits of thread and stitched into weird paisley designs on a map, it robs voters of basic information – who represents me? – and makes it harder to ensure effective legislative representation.
I know plenty of politicians and activists, on both sides of the aisle, who agree with these objections to gerrymandering in principle but fail to act on them. Don’t assume they are just power-hungry miscreants. While they may value a fair, competitive electoral system, they are loathe to imperil other goals they value more highly – such as protecting certain government programs or passing new ones they have long favored.
Again, it’s an understandable temptation. But human beings are always surrounded by temptations. Ethical behavior consists largely of resisting temptations and foregoing immediate gratification for the sake of some greater benefit in the future.
So, redistricting reform is a worthy cause. The details are critically important, however. Some brand-new converts to the cause – certain Democratic politicians who have just lost power, for example – seem to think that creating an independent commission to draw districts is redistricting reform. They are mistaken. I favor the use of a carefully constructed commission to apply neutral rules for redistricting. But the rules are the key here, not the process for applying them.
As it happens, North Carolina has already been through a round of redistricting reform, thanks to the Stephenson v. Bartlett litigation of 2001-03. The state supreme court ultimately ruled that, as much as possible, lawmakers were required to harmonize their obligations under the federal Voting Rights Act with the state constitution’s requirement that county lines be respected when drawing districts. The resulting maps were far from perfect, and retained a Democratic tilt, but they were a clear improvement over the egregious gerrymander initially passed by the legislature in 2001.
No such precedent binds lawmakers when drawing North Carolina’s congressional maps. And within populous counties such as Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, and Forsyth, county-based constraints are irrelevant. That’s one big reason there are more competitive legislative districts in rural areas than in urban ones.
Democrats now suddenly say an independent commission should draw the 2011 maps. Republicans say the timing is problematic, and they are right. To create a true commission system would require amending the state’s constitution, which currently allocates sole redistricting authority to elected lawmakers. To set up some kind of commission-lite by statute would invite chaos, delay, and likely litigation. Keep in mind that every step has to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, and that lawmakers could still reject a statutory commission’s maps and start over if they didn’t like them.
Here’s how I suggest the new General Assembly proceed with redistricting reform:
• Leaders of both houses and the new redistricting committees should commit themselves to neutral, binding constraints such as compactness and respecting jurisdictional lines. The goal should be to devise rules that limit the degrees of freedom any political cartographers would have, be they elected or appointed. The leaders should also hold open hearings and welcome suggestions from individuals and organizations of all political stripes.
• Next, they should prepare and vote on maps within the first four months of the 2011 legislative session. That should be enough time to get them cleared by Washington and in place so candidates can start planning their 2012 campaigns.
• Finally, lawmakers should prepare a constitutional amendment codifying these rules and creating a commission system. It should be submitted for voter approval in the 2012 general election, to allow for careful design and deliberation, ensure the highest possible turnout, and remove any doubt as to the public’s preferences.
I mentioned earlier that principle isn’t the only reason why Republicans should avoid the gerrymandering temptation. There’s a political reason, too. As Democrats have recently learned to their dismay, favorable districts are no guarantee of future success, particularly in the latter elections of a decade of rapid population growth. There’s no way of knowing who will be in charge of the General Assembly in 2021.
So think of redistricting reform as an insurance policy. It may cost you a bit up front, but it can protect you against catastrophic loss in the future.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.