In the twilight of his political career, Ronald Reagan made the media rounds to discuss his administration, legacy, and unfinished business. During several of these interviews, Reagan went out of his way to criticize the longtime practice of gerrymandering electoral districts for partisan advantage.
“I think this is a great conflict of interest,” Reagan told ABC news host (and North Carolina native) David Brinkley in 1988, “to ask men holding office, elected from districts, to change the lines of that district to fit the new population.” Speaking to Firing Line host William F. Buckley a couple of years later, Reagan argued strongly that the redistricting process should be reformed. Describing the convoluted congressional districts in the Los Angeles area as resembling a “nest of snakes,” Reagan complained that legislative majorities in California and most other states had “funneled” as many voters of the opposing party into “a few districts as possible” to subvert the will of the voters.
Bill Buckley, by the way, was also critical of partisan gerrymandering during his long career as a conservative columnist and commentator — ridiculing it a “Mickey Mouse” approach to governance, among other things.
As a conservative who came of age politically during the Reagan era, I can’t help chuckling to myself whenever a Republican critic responds to my longtime advocacy of redistricting reform by questioning my conservative credentials.
Reagan considered gerrymandering to be one of the major impediments to enacting his agenda in Washington. In his day, most legislatures were controlled by Democrats. Most victims of egregious gerrymandering were Republicans. That was certainly the case in North Carolina, where gerrymandering has a long, disreputable, and mostly Democratic history.
It’s an overstatement to say that past districts drawn by Democrats weren’t as slanted as today’s maps because Democrats lacked modern technology. The most contorted legislative maps I’ve ever seen — districts that would have locked Republicans out of power in Raleigh regardless of the preference of the voters — were drawn by Democratic lawmakers after the 2000 elections and census. Only successful litigation by the GOP kept this attempted Democratic gerrymander from sticking.
Most active North Carolina Republicans supported this litigation, by the way, and continued to advocate redistricting reform throughout the first decade of the 21st century. The only major exception I can recall was the late Richard Morgan, who helped keep his political partner (and future felon) Jim Black in charge of the North Carolina House even after Republicans won a majority of seats in the 2002 elections. Morgan insisted that legislatures should retain maximum autonomy to draw districts however they wished, even if Republicans were on the receiving end of the resulting gerrymander.
Needless to say, I don’t think Republican leaders in North Carolina today should take governance advice from Richard Morgan. They should take it from Ronald Reagan.
Set aside for the moment the prudential case for Republicans to support redistricting reform — that given the uncertainty about who will win the 2020 elections, and how current redistricting litigation will end, reform would keep Republicans from suffering the kind of gerrymanders they faced before 2010. North Carolina conservatives and Republicans should change the system simply because it’s the right thing to do, because letting politicians choose their voters rather than letting voters choose their political representatives is incompatible with basic principles of conservative governance.
I am part of a cross-ideological coalition, North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform (NCRedistrict.org), that is backing a fresh approach to the issue this year. House Bill 140, otherwise known as the FAIR Act (for Fairness Accountability and Integrity in Redistricting), would use both a constitutional amendment and a statute to place neutral, nonpartisan constraints on redistricting.
There will never be a perfect way to draw political maps. Perfection is impossible in any human endeavor — which happens to be another core conservative principle. But conservatives should not accept the current process as “the best we can do.” It’s not. Indeed, conservatives should take the lead in reforming redistricting. That’s what Ronald Reagan would do.