RALEIGH – While the state of North Carolina has been a party in several of America’s most important court cases on redistricting, the scourge of political gerrymandering is hardly a Tarheel invention.
Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, the Roman Republic practiced a version of gerrymandering through the design of its Assembly of the Tribes, one of the state’s representative bodies. Despite its name, the Assembly was not so much a group of familial constituencies as it was a geographical system into which Roman voters were placed by magistrates, often to advance the interests of the latter and their allies.
Be it in ancient Rome or modern North Carolina, gerrymandering has served to undermine the legitimacy of representative government, which rests on the ability of a majority of voters to elect the representatives of their choice. The proper remedy is to reform the redistricting process to impose neutral, binding criteria on the creation of electoral districts and to insulate the process as much as possible from incumbent or partisan bias.
If we enact redistricting reform, the result will not be a perfect electoral system. But it would move us closer to our goal, which should be to reduce the gap between the share of popular vote each party receives for Congress or the legislature and the number of seats won in those chambers.
In several recent elections, North Carolina Democrats secured a majority of legislative seats even though Republicans won a majority of votes. That frustrated the will of the voters. Now that Republicans are in power, having won a large-enough statewide majority to overcome the lingering bias of the district maps, the right course of action is not for Republicans to take their turn at playing the same game. The solution is to change the rules of the game to ensure fairness, legitimacy, and competitive elections.
A bipartisan group of legislators is supporting a bill to adapt the state of Iowa’s redistricting process to North Carolina. Essentially, legislative staff would be empowered to draw congressional and legislative maps, subject to legally prescribed criteria and overseen by a bipartisan advisory commission. The General Assembly would vote the maps up or down, without amendment. If a plan goes down to defeat, the staff would draw up another one for a subsequent up-or-down vote, and so on.
I’m glad the bill has been introduced, though I don’t agree on several of its provisions. In fact, I still prefer a commission model over the Iowa model, and prefer to accomplish redistricting reform through constitutional amendment rather than by a statute that can be reversed by a future General Assembly.
What the bill does accomplish is to begin a productive discussion about redistricting reform in North Carolina. As policymakers debate it, there are several principles they should seek to apply. One is that setting the rules of the game is more important than selecting the referees. That is, while I believe someone other than elected legislators should draw up the maps, what matters more to me is that we reduce the potential for gerrymandering by reducing the degrees of freedom that any political cartographers can exercise – and that means creating a priority list of criteria that can be rendered by mathematical formula. Geography is our friend here – we should favor county lines and other jurisdictional lines and prefer those districts that most closely resemble circles. That is compactness, and it should be a legally enforceable rule.
Although some may not realize it, North Carolina’s redistricting process has already been reformed in recent years. These reforms came not by legislation but by litigation, through cases such as Stephenson v. Bartlett and Bartlett v. Strickland. The Stephenson case enforced the state constitution’s whole-county provision, to the extent allowed by federal law, which resulted in fairer, more compact, and more competitive legislative districts. We need similar reform for our congressional districts.
There is no final solution to the problems associated with drawing up electoral maps. Still, if we get the details right, we can strengthen the legitimacy and effectiveness of representative government in our state. Let’s get started.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.