Debate about North Carolina’s new congressional and legislative election maps often focuses on fairness. Critics argue that maps approved last month by the Republican-led General Assembly fail the fairness test.
But it’s not clear that opponents have considered real-world implications of fair mapmaking. Once they do, they might realize that fairness can produce results they dislike.
This column will not defend new state House, state Senate, or congressional maps as fair.
All available evidence suggests lawmakers complied with mapmaking rules set in the state constitution, state law, and federal and state court precedents. If so, the maps should survive legal challenges. Republican mapmakers believe they applied the rules fairly to the task at hand.
But the existing rules allowed legislators to draw districts that boost the party running the mapmaking machinery. Plus they could protect incumbents of all stripes.
The John Locke Foundation has long supported a redistricting process that would remove as many partisan political elements as possible. Locke favors a system with clear, unambiguous rules guiding whoever wields the ultimate mapmaking authority.
Such a system must wait for another day.
Meanwhile, it’s informative to explore what fairness means to others.
This observer places little weight on fairness complaints from professional Democrats — elected officials running under the Democratic banner and the staff and allied activists who focus on placing Democrats in office. For them, fairness equates to maximizing Democrats’ electoral advantages and minimizing losses. They support any scheme that boosts their partisan goals.
The Democratic political operation cries loudest for fair maps. But it’s not alone.
Political reporter Steve Harrison of WFAE radio in Charlotte recently offered a good summary of a common belief within the “fair maps” crowd.
“A good map should not only give both parties a realistic chance at representation that matches their statewide voting share, it should also create as much competition as possible,” Harrison wrote in his “Inside Politics” blog.
The statement sounds reasonable at first glance. But the two goals — representation that matches “statewide voting share” and “as much competition” as possible — rarely coexist in the real world.
Harrison admits in his blog post: “It’s impossible to create 14 toss-up districts.”
Democrats and Republicans aren’t spread evenly across North Carolina. Drawing compact, contiguous districts almost certainly leads to seats that favor one party or another.
But let’s pretend that mapmakers could design 14 toss-up districts. Under such a map, It’s possible that an election would yield a House delegation with seven Democrats and seven Republicans. It’s just as possible, and perhaps more likely, that almost all seats would swing toward one party or the other depending on the political tide.
Imagine ending up with a 12-2, 13-1, or even 14-0 delegation favoring a single party, just because the faction with the wind at its sails wins most toss-up races. Such a scenario would lead to a partisan skew that few within the “fair maps” chorus would support.
Back in the real world, opportunities for true toss-up districts crop up less often. When they do, it’s not certain that those who seek partisan “balance” will endorse the prospect of greater competition.
Harrison reminds us “one Republican proposed map in 2022 was a 6-4-4 — six safe Republican seats, four safe Democratic seats, and four toss-up districts.” Forced by courts to draw the map, Republicans touted it as setting the stage for more competitive congressional elections than any other state.
Had Democrats and courts accepted the competitive map, North Carolina’s US House delegation could have flipped from a 10-4 GOP advantage to an 8-6 Democratic majority, depending on the election cycle. Such a range of possibilities should have appealed to those who talk about election maps responding to voter sentiments.
“It was rejected in favor of the 7-6-1 map,” Harrison reminds us. For Democrats, and for judges, a floor of six safe Democratic seats proved more important than the prospect of working harder to win eight seats.
With the 7-6-1 map in place last year, only two contests ended up with a victory margin of five points or less. In half of the elections, the winning candidate’s victory margin topped 25 points.
“For 11 of the 14 seats, campaigning was basically pointless,” Harrison concluded. “You could say they were rigged.”
Yet those districts produced the 7-7 outcome many advocates preferred to the possibility of a 10-4 outcome in a strong Republican year.
Much of the “fair maps” chorus labeled the results fair. But they must admit to sacrificing competition for the sake of certainty. They choose a brand of fairness that responds poorly to changes in the voters’ will.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.