Opinion: Daily Journal

It’s a Republican Gerrymander

RALEIGH – It’s redistricting time in the state capital. The General Assembly is convening a special session to approve new district maps for Congress, the state senate, and the state house of representatives.

For the first time, Republicans are in charge of the process. If for some reason you’d missed the GOP takeover of the legislature last fall – perhaps you just got back from an extended vacation on the planet Barsoom or something – one look at the proposed congressional map, in particular, would clue you in.

It’s a Republican gerrymander, pure and simple.

I don’t throw the term “gerrymander” around loosely. To me, it has a specific meaning when evaluating the effects of electoral districts on electoral outcomes. If a map makes it likely there will be a significant gap between the number of votes won by a given political party and the number of seats it captures, that’s a partisan gerrymander.

Over the past 10 years, North Carolina voters cast ballots for Congress under a modest Democratic gerrymander. In 2008, for example, Democratic congressional candidates won 54 percent of the statewide vote but took eight of 13 seats, or 62 percent. In 2010, vote totals flipped around. Republicans won 54 percent of the congressional vote – but only six of the 13 seats.

Under a neutral map, the likely result would have been a 7-6 Democratic edge in 2008 and a 7-6 Republican edge in 2010. Gerrymandering gave Democrats an extra seat, all other things being equal. (The fact that they may not been equal in the real world – that a different set of maps may have generated a different set of candidates and contests – is undeniable, but one has to go with the data available, not the data imagined.)

According to a preliminary analysis of the proposed new congressional by John Davis, the map for 2012 would likely result in a floor of eight Republican seats, with the possibility of as many as 10 GOP wins in a good year.

So when I call this a Republican gerrymander, what I mean is that GOP candidates could win just over half of the statewide vote for Congress and end up with 62 percent to 77 percent of the seats.

We haven’t been able to run comparable numbers yet on the state senate and house maps. According to Davis’s preliminary analysis, the state senate map certainly looks more Republican. Out of 50 seats in the new map, 27 have a pronounced Republican lean based on past voting behavior, up from 22 seats in the previous map. But the previous map was itself a (slight) Democratic gerrymander.

What I can say about the legislative maps is that they demonstrate the value of imposing neutral rules on the redistricting process.

When it comes to congressional districts, legislatures are required to keep them roughly similar in population and comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires the drawing of majority-minority districts under certain (highly debated) circumstances. Other than that, lawmakers have pretty much free rein under the law.

That’s trouble.

For North Carolina’s legislative districts, however, there is another set of rules that serve to constrain gerrymandering to protect incumbents or promote partisan gain. They derive from the state constitution’s requirement that counties be kept whole, and a state supreme court’s interpretation of that requirement in a case called Stephenson v. Bartlett.

In places where the federal Voting Rights Act doesn’t trump it, North Carolina’s county-line requirement forces the legislature into a narrow set of choices. That doesn’t mean they can’t gerrymander. But it’s harder.

From the standpoint of voters, for example, district lines ought to be drawn without regard to how many incumbents are forced to run against each other. In the congressional map, the number of such “double-bunked” incumbents was zero. Boo!

But in the legislative maps, dozens of lawmakers are forced into either primary or general elections with their colleagues. Furthermore, by my count 19 Democrat and 19 Republican incumbents were affected. Good!

Even if the legislative maps turn out to be more consistent with voter sovereignty than the congressional maps, I would submit that the results of this first-ever Republican redistricting process illustrate why partisan entities should never be entrusted with the task. I have long favored an independent process – governed by specific, neutral constraints such as compactness ratios – and the arguments are at least as sound today as they were a year ago.

If the Democratic gerrymanders of 1991 and 2001 bothered you, a Republican gerrymander in 2011 should bother you, too.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.