RALEIGH – On the subject of legislative redistricting in North Carolina, I have found both politicians and media commentators to be too quick to accuse and draw conclusions based on the intentions, real or perceived, of others rather than on the available facts. For example, when Republican plaintiffs filed suit in 2002 against an egregious gerrymander by legislative Democrats, many observers ridiculed the plaintiffs and their prospects for success without bothering to read the relevant briefs or consider the relevant arguments. That’s why they badly misread the resulting legal proceedings at virtually every turn.
Doesn’t the state constitution give the elected General Assembly the power to draw electoral districts? Yes, of course, but the power isn’t absolute. It’s subject to judicial review on the basis of relevant constitutional principles, as are all nearly actions by the legislative or executive branches of government.
Aren’t the Republican plaintiffs just trying to engineer their own gerrymander? Sure, it’s difficult to imagine partisans of either party not wanting to maximize their chances of victory, but in order to merit their day in court in the first place the plaintiffs had to base their case on the existing constitution and case law – which serve to constrain potential GOP mischief as much as they do Democratic mischief. The resulting interim maps drawn by Johnston Superior Court Judge Knox Jenkins for the 2002 elections did not, contrary to widespread and ill-informed opinion, create a Republican gerrymander. Several different analyses before the election confirmed that fact, as did the election results (a 28-22 Democratic majority in the Senate and a narrow 61-59 Republican edge in the House, both results coinciding with a strong GOP vote at the top of the ticket for Elizabeth Dole).
Now, political observers are falling into the same trap again. They have concluded that the latest round of litigation by the Republican plaintiffs isn’t even about their party anymore – since an analysis by NC FREE of the maps drawn in November 2003 shows a gain for Republicans – and is entirely about a Captain Ahab-like vendetta by a bitter GOP conspiracy against Republican House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan.
Wrong again. As I’ve already written, the available evidence, not suppositions or speculations, suggests that the latest maps won’t survive judicial scrutiny because they still did not strictly follow the clear criteria laid out by the North Carolina Supreme Court in the Stephenson v. Bartlett case. Moreover, the much-vaunted data from NC FREE, the invaluable political-information group headed by veteran analyst John Davis, should have been examined closely rather than simply summarized and bounced around the political echo chamber in Raleigh.
Thanks to Davis, who truly is a fair and balanced source of insight, I was able to look at the NC FREE analysis of the House and Senate districts in great detail and then to compare it to the results of my own study, which is based on a set of criteria I first developed for the 1998 legislative-election cycle. For the most part, Davis’ conclusions track with my own. This is particularly evident in the Senate map, where he and I both count 24 seats that are safely or likely Democratic and 22 that are safely or likely Republican, with four true swing seats. We disagree only on the classification of two specific districts (the 2nd and the 9th) and on how much of an improvement the 2003 districts are for Senate Democrats over the 2002 districts (NC FREE had counted 22 Democratic seats and 22 Republican ones in 2002, while my count was 21 Dems and 23 GOPs).
But over in the NC House, where the bulk of political attention has been this year, I find NC FREE’s analysis to be a little less persuasive. Davis considers 55 of the 120 districts to be Republican or Republican-leaning, with 51 Democratic seats and 14 swings. If true, this would suggest a moderate movement in the GOP’s direction compared with the 2002 seats, which NC FREE rated as 52 Democratic, 49 Republican, and 19 swing.
At this point, I should mention that my system uses a different classification than NC FREE does. I rate districts as safely or moderately partisan, or swing with a Democratic or Republican “tilt,” or swing with no tilt. I have more categories, in other words: seven vs. NC FREE’s five. I assume that safe seats are impossible for the other party to capture, moderate seats are competitive only in atypical situations such as the GOP’s strong statewide surge in 1994, and swing seats are always competitive but not equally so across the state.
I rate the 2003 House seats as more closely split: 53 safely or moderately Democratic, 53 safely or moderately Republican, and 14 swings, of which 7 are tilted Democratic, 5 are tilted to the GOP, and 2 are straight down the middle. By comparison, in 2002 I counted 52 Republican seats, 47 Democratic ones, and 21 swings: 11 tilted Democratic, 8 Republican, and 2 neutral.
Much of the difference appears to come down to how much weight is given to the success of statewide candidates in the handful of districts in question. I don’t give them quite as much deference as the NC FREE formula does, in part because I fear the influence of outliers such as Elizabeth Dole’s atypically strong showing in 2002 and in part because I don’t consider elections for federal offices such as Senate or (unfortunately) obscure offices such as State Auditor to be necessarily indicative of voter sentiment about state issues and personalities.
Let me provide a couple of examples. NC FREE ranks incumbent Rep. Bill Daughtridge’s District 25 in Nash County as leaning Republican. But 54 percent of the voters are registered Democrats, with 36 percent Republican and nearly a quarter African-American, who tend to break strongly Democratic all the way down the ballot. In 2000, the district went 55 percent for Republican Bev Lake for chief justice but gave Democratic Ralph Campbell a slight edge for State Auditor and Mike Easley a strong 55 percent win over Richard Vinroot (though this should be discounted somewhat due to Easley being a hometown boy). Elizabeth Dole and Supreme Court candidate Ed Brady did far better for the GOP in 2002 but I don’t consider either to be indicative of likely voting patterns for state legislature in an average year. I rate this district as a swing seat.
Similarly, look at incumbent Rep. Joanne Bowie’s District 57 in Guilford County. NC FREE classifies it, barely, as a swing district. I rate it a moderately Democratic seat (unfortunately for the Republican Bowie). Its Democratic registration is below 50 percent, which is often a danger sign for the party but not in an urban district where unaffiliated voters are more numerous and more liberal-leaning. In recent elections, voters in the 57th voted by fairly large margins for Democrats. Even Erskine Bowles won here, narrowly, against the Dole phenomenon (though keep in mind that he had family ties in Greensboro.)
Finally, consider the 10th District down east in and around Kinston. Republican incumbent Rep. Stephen LaRoque is in a swing district, according to NC FREE. But fully 63 percent of voters are Democrats and only 27 percent are Republicans. Sure, some of these Democrats are conservative-leaning – thus explaining why Lake won handily in 2000 and Dole in 2002. But 26 percent of the voters are black, creating a strong base of loyal Democrats, and both Campbell and Easley won here in 2000. I call this a moderately Democratic seat due to the fact that cross-party voting is far less likely for offices like state legislature than it is for an exceptional Republican U.S. Senate candidate. (By the way, in the interim maps the 10th District was less Democratic at 60 percent registration and 22 percent African-American, so LaRoque’s political prospects were obviously worsened in the redistricting)
The bottom line is that both NC FREE’s analysis and mine suggest that the House map drawn in 2003 reduces the number of truly competitive swing districts, as incumbents of both parties sought to reduce their exposure to challengers (perhaps illustrating at least one obvious advantage to judicial line-drawing). But while NC FREE thinks that Republicans gained quite a bit at the expense of swings in the 2003 map and Democrats lost (Republicans going from 49 to 55 seats and Democrats going from 52 to 51), I think the Democrats mainly benefited (going from 47 to 53 while Republicans went only from 52 to 53). By the way, I don’t think that any fair examination of the data would conclude that Co-Speaker Morgan’s role in the redistricting process served to reduce the number of Republican-leaning seats, contrary to what some of his GOP critics have implied. It would be fair to say that he didn’t stop Democrats from making disproportionate gains; I’ll leave it to Republicans to judge whether they find that objectionable or unavoidable.
These are really marginal differences. Critics of the GOP plaintiffs are blowing even the NC FREE numbers out of proportion, given that many of these races will likely be extremely close however you rate them ahead of time and that Democrats still enjoy a clear shot at winning the N.C. House, as do Republicans, if the 2003 districts hold. Speaking of, though, this could all be rendered moot by the continued litigation. And one more thing: it is arguably not all that important to compare the 2003 maps to the 2002 interim maps, given that strict adherence to the Stephenson criteria would generate yet another set of maps of unknown partisan import – maps that would presumably, and preferably, contain more truly competitive districts that maximize the ability of voters themselves to decide the outcome of elections.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.