RALEIGH – Tuesday was road-trip day for my “N.C. Spin” sparring partner Chris Fitzsimon and I as we headed to Charlotte and back to do press interviews as part of a statewide media blitz by the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform to promote redistricting reform.
As Chris and I took the Piedmont’s less-congested, more-scenic route on U.S. 64/N.C. 49 – my efforts to pass the time by persuading him of the awesome majesty of capital-gains tax reduction fell slightly short – we passed through more than a dozen different legislative and congressional districts. It was easy to tell. We saw the campaign signs at every urban and rural intersection of significance.
Actually, a striking aspect of campaign signage is that, in part because political districts are so convoluted and squiggly, many if not most drivers who see them are in no position to act on them. They don’t live in the proper jurisdiction. Indeed, every time an election comes around, I hear from many voters of my acquaintance who don’t know which district they are in. A precondition for casting a thoughtful, informed vote – as opposed to a haphazard, irresponsible vote based on a fleeting glimmer of name recognition – is that voters be able to research the backgrounds and positions of the candidates. That, in turn, requires that they need not devote heroic efforts to determining which race they should research.
Perhaps the most useful clues are those ubiquitous, full-color mailers that many North Carolina voters have been receiving in recent weeks. If you receive Jane Doe’s flyer, you are probably (though not always) in Senator Doe’s district. Unfortunately, due to their frequency and resemblance to junk mail, many of these mailers go from horizontal cylindrical container to vertical cylindrical container without the recipient’s scrutiny.
Informing the voter with more rational political maps is one of the selling points of the idea that Chris and I were peddling as part of the Coalition media tour today: creating an independent commission for drawing North Carolina’s political districts. Another selling point is the possibility of increasing the number of contested districts. You’d expect me to say something like this, so sorry to be predictable, but here goes. Competition is an effective means of promoting excellence in virtually every arena: business, sports, university admissions, public-policy think tanks, spelling bees – you name it. Politics is no exception. While it is unrealistic to expect any redistricting reform to make all 170 legislative races and 13 U.S. House races in North Carolina so competitive that either major party could win them – there are some counties where fair districts will nevertheless elect Democrats virtually every time, ditto for Republican counties – the current maps provide only a small number of truly competitive districts, as few as four in the Senate and little more than a dozen or so in the House.
Entrusting the power to draw district lines in an independent commission can be accomplished in a variety of different ways. Our Coalition is not yet committed to any particular design element, such as the way commissioners would be appointed. Nor is a commission a sufficient condition for reforming the system, because what we also need are clearly defined criteria for ensuring fairness and defining a compact, comprehensible set of coherent political communities. An effective commission will need to rely on criteria that are largely numerical, minimizing discretion and reducing the potential for subsequent litigation (though the prospect of litigation cannot, and really should not, be entirely precluded). And we should keep in mind that even in the states with independent commissions, redistricting can still be problematic.
There is no perfect way to draw political boundaries. What we can say for sure is that the current system is deeply flawed. It’s time to start a broad, statewide conversation about what to set up in its place.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.