Opinion: Daily Journal

Four suggestions to help redistricting reformers avoid pitfalls

With fresh census data forcing N.C. lawmakers to draw new congressional and legislative election maps next year, we’re bound to hear calls once again for redistricting reform.

As a longtime reform supporter, I remain sympathetic to the cause. But I hope those who take the lead on the issue can avoid repeating critical mistakes from recent years. Those mistakes have helped scuttle past reform efforts.

This column offers four suggestions for reformers to consider. The first involves one often-cited means of reform: an independent redistricting commission.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, offers a compelling counterargument for those who want to create a new mapmaking group.

“Where we’ve seen these commissions in other states, they end up being populated by folks who are partisans of one sort or the other,” Berger said in a Nov. 4 television interview. “So I think if you’re going to have folks who are partisans, they ought to be elected by the people of the state.”

This disagreement over the desirability of a new mapmaking group leads to suggestion No. 1: Focus less attention on who draws the maps. Focus more attention on good rules to constrain mapmakers.

North Carolina’s court-mandated 2019 redistricting process led to an openness in electoral mapmaking the state never had seen before — under Republicans or Democrats. Lawmakers drew maps in public, before in-person observers and continuous video feeds. Even Democrats who voted against the 2019 maps praised the open process.

In addition to the new level of transparency, judges also ordered constraints that limited the potential for partisan mapmaking mischief. Emphasizing those types of rules for future redistricting makes sense to this observer.

That strategy also fits well with Berger’s comments about redistricting. “On the Senate side, that’s going to be the point we would start from — the way we handled things in 2019,” he said in a post-election news conference. “We’ll see if that’s a way for us to do it.”

Though the much-lauded 2019 redistricting process resulted from court cases, my suggestion No 2 for redistricting reformers is simple: Don’t sue.

North Carolina’s election maps generated decade-long court battles in both the 2000s, when Democrats controlled the mapmaking process, and the 2010s, when Republicans held the upper hand.

It’s almost certain that some Democratic interest group will object to maps that result from Republican-led redistricting in 2021. State courts have set no clear-cut standard of acceptable versus unconstitutional partisanship in election mapmaking. Future court cases will test those boundaries.

That doesn’t mean redistricting reformers should play an active role in the legal process. They risk coming across more as partisan operatives than independent supporters of good-government reforms. That certainly held true for the group Common Cause in recent years. Its lawsuits against N.C. maps effectively shut the door on any prospect of reform through the standard legislative process.

Steering clear of the legal fight makes sense for those who seek broad-based, long-lasting, bipartisan reform.

My third and fourth suggestions focus on use, abuse, and misuse of the term “gerrymandering” itself.

It’s clear that both Democrats and Republicans have used mapmaking power to benefit their own party while hurting their opponents. By definition, they have engaged in gerrymandering. But it’s a mistake for reformers to label gerrymandering as the sole or even primary cause of electoral and policy results they dislike.

Suggestion No. 3: Stop making dubious claims about gerrymandering’s electoral impact. More specifically, drop the argument that North Carolina would face near-even splits in its congressional delegation and both chambers of the General Assembly without gerrymandering.

Folks at Common Cause should know better. When they helped round up a bipartisan group of former N.C. Supreme Court justices in 2016 to design a “fair” congressional map, the result was far from a 50-50 split. All parties involved agreed the map was likely to yield a congressional delegation with six Republicans, four Democrats, and three swing seats. In other words, normal electoral circumstances could give the GOP an advantage as large as 9-4. (Real-life gerrymandered districts boosted that advantage by one, creating a 10-3 split.)

Our system of geographic districts favors Republicans. While Democrats tend to cluster closer together, Republican voters disperse throughout the state.

Just look at the latest presidential race. Throwing out third-party candidates, Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by a margin of less than 51-49% in North Carolina. Yet Trump won 75 of the state’s 100 counties. Trump won those counties by a total margin of less than 800,000 votes. Biden won his 25 counties by more than 700,000 votes.

That same type of electoral concentration plays out in geographic districts for congressional and legislative seats. Gerrymandering plays no role in the residential patterns that produce such wide disparities.

If reformers want results of congressional and legislative elections to reflect the close split of Democratic and Republican voters across the state, their proper target is not gerrymandering. They should aim instead to change our longstanding first-past-the-post electoral system based on geographic districts. They should advocate adoption of proportional representation. That’s a goal that would require a much different strategy.

There’s another way in which reformers tend to blame gerrymandering incorrectly. They contend that Republican policy shifts over the past decade in North Carolina — tax cuts, enhanced parental school choice, regulatory reforms — all result from gerrymandered districts.

That’s not true. Suggestion No. 4: Stop treating gerrymandering as all-purpose bogeyman. Republican-drawn election maps do not deserve credit or blame for Republican control over the state’s legislative chambers during the past decade.

As N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore reminded reporters Nov. 4, GOP lawmakers initially won control of the legislature in 2010. Democrats drew the maps used that year.

Gerrymandering certainly played a role in boosting GOP majorities during the 2012 elections. But N.C. voters also elected a Republican governor that year. Policies enacted over the next four years did not depend on Republicans holding more than a bare majority of legislative seats.

One could make a stronger argument that gerrymandered districts helped GOP legislative supermajorities overcome a Democratic governor’s objections in 2017 and 2018. But those supermajorities were gone by 2019.

In some respects, this year’s congressional and legislative elections mirrored those held in 2010. While Republicans approved new election districts, each map was based on ideas originating from Democrats. Despite this fact, the GOP maintained control of both the state House and Senate, as well as an 8-5 majority within the congressional delegation.

“So there ought to be the end of this talk about gerrymandering and all this, ‘That’s why Republicans are in charge,’” Moore said. “The reality is the voters of this state chose to have a Republican majority in the state Senate and in the state House. And every time these groups want to come in and try to attack, they’re really insulting those voters.”

Facts on the ground tell us that any change in North Carolina’s redistricting process in 2021 will require support from Moore, Berger, and a majority of their Republican colleagues. It’s hard to imagine reformers securing that support without following the suggestions outlined above.

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