Opinion: Daily Journal

Fair Is Not Foul

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, three grotesque witches enter the stage with thunder rumbling in the background. You may recall that the witches ending up chanting in unison: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair/Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

The tragedy of Macbeth is, in part, about contrasts and inversions. Characters perceive themselves as good, at least at the beginning of the play, and yet do evil. Others are clearly evil from the start and yet see their actions as advancing their own conception of the good.

I make this observation because the redistricting drama here in North Carolina is itself full of contrasts and inversions. During the 1990s and 2000s, when Democrats were in control of the General Assembly, they rejected repeated calls for changing the way North Carolina drew its congressional and legislative districts by arguing that they were just following the rules of a game they did not invent. They even argued that maintaining Democratic majorities was more important than maximizing competitive elections — because, in their mind, Democratic majorities meant better public policy, stronger schools, fairer taxes, and healthier citizens.

At the time, Republicans pointed out that they also believed their ideas would make North Carolina a fairer, healthier, better-educated, more-prosperous place. Giving voters a choice among viable alternatives in competitive elections is the right way to sort these arguments out, they said, not producing skewed district maps and, thus, skewed electoral results.

Also, GOP lawmakers warned that Democrats ought not to assume they would always be the party in power at the end of a decade. What if we Republicans happen to be in charge next time, they asked? Would you, the Democrats, really want to be treated the way you have treated us in the past? Wouldn’t you rather take out an insurance policy against an electoral disaster by creating some kind of neutral, rules-based redistricting process?

Now, for some actors in this drama, fair is foul and foul is fair. After the 2010 elections gave control of the General Assembly to the Republicans, they proceeded to draw the congressional and legislative maps. Although compliant with state and federal law, the resulting districts clearly gave GOP candidates an edge in achieving majorities of North Carolina’s legislative and congressional seats.

Many Democrats suddenly became champions of redistricting reform. Some Republicans suddenly reconsidered their previous support for redistricting reform. I’m not saying that all these members are being disingenuous or dishonest. I think that their views on this issue reflect their contrasting positions and recollections. But this is not a play. It is real life. The stakes are high. It is important for all of us as North Carolinians to get the policy right, not simply to portray some political character that may be assigned to us.

I have long supported redistricting reform, along with many colleagues from the Right and Left. I’m not wedded to any particular model. There will be at least two different bills filed during the 2015 legislative session. One would entrust the drawing of district lines to the legislative staff, subject to an up-or-down vote by both chambers of the General Assembly. The other would create a multi-partisan commission to produce the maps, again subject to an up-or-down vote by lawmakers. The latter wouldn’t go into effect until after the 2030 Census — a provision designed to get some Republican lawmakers to support the bill knowing that they probably won’t be personally affected by it.

There is plenty of room for disagreement about the details. I’m sure redistricting reformers would welcome any of a wide range of alternatives as long as it is based on the principle that neutral rules should be our means and competitive elections our end.

Now, I’ve seen this show many times before. I know that convincing lawmakers to give up power over the electoral maps won’t be easy. Still, it’s the right thing to do. To redistricting reformers, I advise patience and persistence. “But screw your courage to the sticking-place,” one might say, “and we’ll not fail.”

Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.