Draw North Carolina’s election maps fairly, and we’ll end up with representation that more closely resembles this state’s tight partisan split. Right?
Two factors help explain why. The first is tied to geography. The second involves a fundamental element of the American political system.
Before exploring both factors, it’s important to note that fair maps represent an important end, not just a means.
Most voices speaking today in favor of redistricting reform want to see more Democrats elected to Congress and the General Assembly. Most of these same voices remained silent on the issue prior to 2011. What changed that year? Republicans took over the state’s redistricting, or mapmaking, process.
The John Locke Foundation has sought redistricting reform since the 1990s, when Democrats abused electoral mapmaking to boost their partisan advantage. Twenty-odd years later, this organization still wants reform, even as Republicans have used redistricting in recent years to bolster their own strength.
North Carolina deserves a better redistricting process, regardless of the likely electoral outcomes. But one shouldn’t overestimate the benefits of that better process — one that relies on clear rules that limit opportunities for mapmaking mischief.
Adopt the fairest possible election maps, and it’s not clear that North Carolina would end up with a congressional delegation or legislative chambers nearly evenly split between the two major parties.
North Carolina political geography helps explain why.
The state elects 13 members to the U.S. House of Representatives. The state House has 120 representatives of its own, while voters elect 50 state senators. Each of these 183 officeholders serves a distinct geographic district.
The redistricting process treats North Carolina as an oddly shaped pie. Based on population data from the state’s latest census, lawmakers slice that pie into 13 slices of equal population for a congressional map. They repeat the process with separate pies featuring 50 state Senate slices and 120 House slices.
Constitutional provisions and court rulings complicate the proceedings. For instance, mapmakers face limits on splitting counties. They also have faced ever-changing federal rules (sometimes described as a “Goldilocks standard”) about the degree to which they must take voters’ race into account.
But even if those complications did not exist, it would be impossible for lawmakers to craft election maps in which each district — from Murphy to Manteo, from Cherokee to Currituck — reflected average statewide voter preferences.
The state Republican Party attempted to make that point during a recent redistricting hearing.
President Trump secured just under 50 percent of the North Carolina vote in the 2016 election, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won 46 percent. Omitting third-party votes, Trump beat Clinton, 52-48. If Trump and Clinton voters had been dispersed equally across the state, you might have expected Trump to have won roughly 52 of the state’s 100 counties.
Instead, as the GOP has pointed out, Trump won 76 counties. Clinton supporters, while numerous, clustered together more closely geographically than those of the winning candidate.
Congressional and legislative votes do not offer an apples-to-apples comparison to the presidential race, but the pattern is similar. Those likely to vote for Democratic candidates have tended to live in higher concentrations in a more compact geographic area than those likely to support Republican candidates. Maps based on geographical boundaries are likely to produce some districts with big Democratic victories, alongside districts with smaller Republican victories.
This became apparent one year ago, when a group of retired N.C. Supreme Court justices and judges worked with Duke University and the left-of-center group Common Cause to draw their own mock congressional districts. They ended up with six “likely Republican” districts, four “likely Democratic” districts, and three competitive, or toss-up, districts.
Under normal electoral circumstances, then, that map could produce a congressional delegation ranging anywhere from 7-6 in the Democrats’ favor to 9-4 for the Republicans. Yes, the GOP could win almost 70 percent of the state’s congressional seats, under maps prepared in part by a left-of-center political group, even though recent trends suggest neither party is likely to win more than 55 percent of the total congressional vote.
It’s also worth noting that the 9-4 GOP split produced under that mock scenario represents just one flipped seat from the current congressional delegation. Republican-drawn maps have produced a congressional delegation featuring 10 Republicans and three Democrats.
In addition to geographic factors, one must also consider the impact of the electoral system itself. North Carolina uses the same model employed across the country for congressional and legislative elections. In our “first-past-the-post” contests, whoever gets the most votes in a district wins. That’s true whether the winner secures 80 percent support or one vote more than 50 percent.
The system explains why Ronald Reagan won less than 51 percent of the popular vote in 1980 but earned a landslide of 489 (91 percent) electoral votes. Four years later, Reagan earned nearly 59 percent of the popular vote and 525 (98 percent) electoral votes. He won almost every state, even though the victory margins might have been close, especially the first time around.
This is the point N.C. Republicans have been trying to make when they contrast our political system to the primarily European and Latin American parliaments that use proportional representation. In that system, the total vote a party secures across the country helps determine the number of seats that party holds in the legislative body.
In contrast, district-by-district elections can produce wide variations between a party’s overall vote totals and the number of seats its candidates win.
This should not surprise us. If it were possible to draw 13 toss-up congressional districts, it would be possible for one party or the other to run the table if they could win a bare majority of votes in each district. The same would be true for 50 competitive state Senate districts or 120 competitive state House districts.
One suspects that few of the people arguing today for fair maps would like to see a Republican wave election that generates a 100-20 GOP majority in the N.C. House or a 40-10 majority in the Senate. Likewise, Republicans would hate to see the reverse during an election year that favors Democrats.
We’ve already seen that geography is likely to set limits that would prevent swings that far in either party’s direction. Under any set of maps using real-life North Carolina circumstances, some districts almost certainly will elect Democrats. Others almost certainly will elect Republicans.
But it’s important for those who argue for redistricting reform to realize that fairness still opens the door for a disconnect between a party’s vote total and its electoral representation. Under the least partisan maps possible, one political party still could seize an electoral advantage that doesn’t match its advantage in the statewide popular vote.
Those who want to lock in partisan balance in the N.C. General Assembly and the state congressional delegation don’t want fair maps. They want partisan gerrymandering that achieves a different goal than the one Republicans have pursued since 2011.
Redistricting reform represents a worthwhile goal. It might not produce the results its most vocal advocates desire.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.