Opinion: Daily Journal

Competitive Elections or Preferred Partisan Split

Do you prefer competitive elections? Or results that represent the nearly even partisan political split within North Carolina?

Those two choices aren’t mutually exclusive. But too much of today’s debate about electoral redistricting seems to suggest that the second result flows naturally from the first. Alas, that’s a non sequitur.

The John Locke Foundation favors competitive elections, based on election maps that are as free of partisan bias as possible. For years, the organization has touted electoral redistricting reform emphasizing “rules that limit the degrees of freedom any political cartographers would have.”

Those rules would include items such as compactness of districts and respect for existing jurisdictional lines. The rules should not include partisan bias of any kind.

Reform of this type makes sense. Democrats who complain today that Republicans have used the redistricting process since 2011 to maximize partisan advantage know exactly how Republicans felt for decades before winning control of the map-drawing process in 2010.

The GOP won a majority of total votes for seats in the 120-member N.C. House of Representatives in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006, yet never won control of that chamber during any of those election years. Maps drawn by Democrats skewed election results toward Democrats. (Well, Republicans actually did win control at the ballot box in 2002, only to be undermined in the following weeks by Democratic House Speaker Jim Black’s underhanded shenanigans.) Only when Republicans won nearly 59 percent of the total House vote in 2010 were they able to overcome Democrats’ partisan gerrymander and take the gavel of power.

But even a 54-45 advantage in congressional votes that year failed to push the GOP into a majority among North Carolina’s congressional delegation. Democrats won seven of the 13 seats in 2010. Republican legislators needed control of the maps to ensure the congressional delegation’s flip in partisan makeup two years later.

Today, Republicans’ advantage sits at 10-3 within the congressional delegation. And GOP legislators want to keep it that way. They built a goal of maintaining the 10-3 split into the rules tied to new maps a three-judge panel ordered earlier this month.

Here’s where the confusion about competitive elections and closely divided electoral results comes into play.

While taking issue with Republican legislators’ latest congressional map-drawing process, some Democrats questioned why their partisan opponents chose a 10-3 split, rather than 8-5. Surely, these Democrats argued, a 7-6 or 8-5 split in the congressional delegation would reflect more accurately the partisan makeup of the North Carolina voting population.

That’s true. What is also true is that drawing districts to maximize competitiveness would be unlikely to yield a consistent 7-6 or 8-5 split in North Carolina’s congressional delegation.

Here’s why: The more competitive each individual district becomes, the more likely a political party is to win in that district when conditions favor that party. If one party wins just over 50 percent of the vote in every district, it wins them all. There’s no prize for second place.

Draw 13 congressional districts such that both parties have a relatively equal shot of winning each race, and there’s a chance that Democrats could win all 13 races in a strong Democratic year, and Republicans could sweep all 13 in a strong GOP year.

Now it might not be possible to draw 13 compact, contiguous congressional districts in North Carolina that give Democrats and Republicans a relatively equal shot of winning each contest. One suspects that some areas of the state are certain to favor a Democrat in almost every election, while others will back a Republican in nearly every instance.

It’s certainly not possible to get 13 equally competitive districts as long as mapmakers — Democrat, Republican, or independent — must draw some districts to favor racial minority representation specifically. In addition to making those specially drawn districts more likely to elect candidates of one party, the pool of available voters for the rest of the state’s districts will skew — at least slightly — toward the other party.

Plus electoral mapmakers cannot guarantee competitive races. The power of incumbency, the relative quality of candidates and their ideas in each contest, and the general mood of the electorate in favor of one party or another can play as large a role — or larger — than district map lines.

Still, maps drawn to emphasize competition are likely to lead to major swings in political party representation in Congress from election to election.

If a mapmaker aims to ensure a more stable partisan split in the congressional delegation — such as the 8-5 advantage suggested by some Democrats during recent legislative hearings — it would make much more sense for him to draw districts that guarantee each major party four or five safe seats, while forcing them to duke it out every two years for the remaining competitive districts.

But those who prefer that type of arrangement need to own up to the fact that they’re supporting the very process of electoral gerrymandering they claim to oppose. Whether maps are designed to elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats, seven Republicans and six Democrats, or 10 Democrats and three Republicans, building partisan advantage into the maps amounts to gerrymandering.

If you accept gerrymandering at all, it’s hard to argue against Republicans’ explicit efforts to use that process to maximize their electoral advantage. Stacking the deck against candidates of a particular party is bad for any election district. If you oppose gerrymandering, you shouldn’t argue for maps designed to guarantee any desired result.

Argue instead for compact, contiguous districts based on rules that limit mapmakers’ freedom to build in any partisan advantage. Then let the electoral chips fall where they may.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.