Opinion: Daily Journal

Why The Cities Aren’t Competitive

RALEIGH – In writing yesterday’s rundown of the 36 key races that will determine control of the North Carolina General Assembly this fall, I came up with the phrase “Four Corners, plus a few” to describe the Republican offense.

Nearly two-thirds of all the competitive races can be found outside North Carolina’s major media markets, in the four corners of the state. Most of the remaining races can be found in the Sandhills region in and and around Fayetteville.

Why are so few of the key House and Senate races in the state’s largest metropolitan areas? My theory is that it has to do with redistricting.

After the 2000 election, Democrats came into the 2001 legislative session with the power and the motivation to redraw the political districts to benefit their party. Their initial maps for the NC House and Senate were so egregiously gerrymandered, however, that they set themselves up to be sued for violating the state constitution.

The mostly Republican plaintiffs argued that the Democrats had wholly ignored the constitutional requirement that legislative districts respect the integrity of county lines. The Democrats conceded the charge but argued that it didn’t matter – the federal Voting Rights Act had invalidated the state constitution’s whole-county provision, they said, so they were within their rights to ignore the constraint.

The Democrats lost the case. For reasons too complicated to go into here, the Democrats were still able to draw the final maps to their own benefit, but harmonizing the intent of the constitution with federal law led to county-based rules that constrained how creative the line-drawers could be in places where multiple counties were needed to reach the target populations for House and Senate districts.

Where were these places? Many were in the aforementioned four corners of the state, the rural and small-town communities that must be knitted together across several counties to form districts. To a large degree in the Senate, and some less so in the House, these rural districts tended to be reasonable, compact, and often competitive.

In urban counties such as Mecklenburg, Wake, and Guilford, however, the populations were large enough that legislators could draw multiple districts within the county – meaning that all bets were off, constitutionally. The political cartographers could do pretty much whatever they wanted, as long as they didn’t transgress Voting Rights Act considerations in jurisdictions subject to the VRA.

The end result, in my view, is that North Carolina’s urban areas have less competition for legislative seats than they ought to. There ought not to be as many safe Democratic and Republican seats in Charlotte, the Triangle, and the Triad.

While there is no constitutional provision requiring a new General Assembly to fix this, I think they could adopt rules designed to generate the kinds of compact districts within urban counties that we see in more rural areas. For example, legislators could agree to respect jurisdictional lines for municipalities and perhaps even county commission and school board districts. They could also compute the compactness of the district maps, rendering a statistic that would allow alternative maps to be rated accordingly.

All this assumes that a newly elected General Assembly will draw the next set of legislative districts. Many Republicans and some Democrats have previously endorsed the idea of setting up a redistricting commission, armed with ironclad rules and restrictions, to limit the influence of incumbents and the possibility of gerrymandering.

If they don’t follow through, they’ll be subject to criticism for hypocrisy. On the other hand, a commission with real power could exist only after a successful public vote to amend the state constitution. The timing is problematic.

Here’s an idea: the newly elected General Assembly, no matter who is in charge, should advance three pieces of legislation in 2011. First, they should enact new redistricting rules that telegraph their commitment to compactness and other neutral principles for drawing districts. Second, they should enact new maps according to those rules. And third, they should enact legislation authorizing a referendum to write such rules, and a commission system, into the state constitution.

Sound like a plan?

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.