Perhaps it’s fitting that North Carolina’s gerrymandering fight returns to the national stage during the same week that major-league baseball teams return to action.
That’s because recent debates about this state’s election maps have been influenced by a “Barry Bonds effect.”
No, you won’t find the controversial slugger’s name within the volumes of documents filed in the Rucho v. Common Cause case. U.S. Supreme Court justices hear oral arguments today in that dispute involving N.C. congressional election districts.
The Bonds effect maintains no ties to formal legal theories or social science research. Yet it might shed light on why gerrymandering has become such a potent issue in N.C. politics within the past decade.
Longtime baseball fans remember the steroid era, when performance-enhancing drugs transformed mediocre players into good ones and helped some better-than-average players soar close to the game’s top heights. Some critics complained, but no one addressed their concerns.
Then there was Barry Bonds. By 2000 he already had compiled Hall of Fame-caliber achievements. During the next decade, banned substances appeared to help boost his on-field performance from great to unbelievable. Bonds ended up shattering baseball’s cherished single-season and career home run records.
It took a top-tier player achieving unprecedented results for baseball’s establishment to take notice. Officials addressed steroid concerns that had amounted to background noise for years. The major leagues cracked down on banned substances and those accused of using them.
What does this have to do with gerrymandering in North Carolina?
The practice of drawing election maps for partisan advantage is older than America’s pastime. Politically inspired election districts existed for years before the controversial 1812 Massachusetts state senate election map that gave gerrymandering its name.
Gerrymandering has played a significant role in N.C. politics for decades. Democrats employed the practice frequently once Republicans challenged Democratic dominance of state elections in the last decades of the 20th century.
The practice produced bizarre election maps. Most infamous was the 12th Congressional District drawn for the 1992 elections. Snaking originally from Durham to Gastonia, and eventually from Greensboro to Charlotte, the 12th allowed Democrats to create a mandated majority-minority district. At the same time, their party had a good chance to win the lion’s share of the other 11 congressional seats.
Decades of mapmaking mischief under Democratic control generated some criticism. Along with obvious objections from Republicans, outside pundits occasionally opined against gerrymandering. But the issue never reached the top tier of N.C. policy debates.
Now gerrymandering has assumed unprecedented prominence in North Carolina’s political discourse. What changed?
First and foremost, Republicans now control the state’s election redistricting process. Winning control of the N.C. General Assembly in 2010, under maps drawn by Democrats, Republicans have crafted the state’s congressional and legislative election maps during this decade. They have used the process to solidify their own advantages.
It should surprise no one that Democrats raise more concerns about gerrymandering now than they did during their time of legislative dominance. It’s no more surprising that some Republicans who once bemoaned gerrymandering now balk at any potential reforms. To the extent that major media outlets and the academic establishment reflect liberal sentiments, gerrymandering might be attracting more attention today than it would if Democrats still drew state maps.
But I submit that there’s an additional factor to consider. Here’s where the Barry Bonds analogy comes into play.
Because Democrats tend to cluster more closely together geographically than Republicans in this state, the GOP enjoys an advantage when it comes to drawing election districts. Make districts as compact and contiguous as you can, and Republicans are still likely to gain an edge.
A clear example of this geographical disparity emerged in the 2016 presidential election. Omitting third-party candidates, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a 52-48 margin. If Republicans and Democrats had been dispersed fairly equally across the state, one might have expected Trump to win about 52 of the state’s 100 counties. He actually won 76. Had each county represented an “elector,” Trump’s slim victory margin among actual voters would have jumped to a 3-to-1 advantage.
That election was no outlier. Left-of-center advocacy group Common Cause worked with a bipartisan group of retired N.C. judges in 2016. They attempted to design “fair” congressional election districts. Their map produced six districts that were likely to elect a Republican, four likely to elect a Democrat, and three toss-ups.
In normal circumstances, then, with evenly matched candidates, a good election for Democrats would produce no more than a 7-6 advantage under the “fair” maps. On the other hand, a slight shift of political winds could swing the outcome toward a 9-4 Republican advantage.
Take this built-in geographical advantage for Republicans, then give GOP lawmakers control over redistricting, and one might expect the resulting election maps to give Republicans an even greater edge.
For instance, if “fair” maps could result in Republicans winning nine of the state’s 13 congressional seats, it’s within reason that maps intentionally skewed toward the GOP could give them 10 seats. In legislative elections, Republicans’ geographic advantage would be likely to transform a slight edge in the overall statewide vote into a substantial margin of legislative seats. Give the GOP control of the maps as well, and that substantial margin could turn into a veto-proof supermajority.
Combining his superior baseball skills with unnatural enhancements, Barry Bonds broke baseball’s record book. His extraordinary exploits brought attention to performance-enhancing drugs in a way that few other baseball players could have done.
The same might be said for election redistricting as practiced by a political party that already enjoyed a built-in geographic advantage. If Republican gerrymandering in North Carolina appears “excessive” or “extreme,” as some critics contend, call it a case of the Barry Bonds effect.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.