Split decisions

Congressional redistricting renders a puzzle in more ways than one.

December 18, 2012 

Redistricting is supposed to be a dutiful chore done by the political party in legislative power in a state every 10 years, following a Census, to balance representation of congressional and legislative districts. But in North Carolina and elsewhere, it’s become a political strategy: draw the lines in whatever way gives the party in power an advantage that will last a decade.

In North Carolina, Republicans have learned the game all too well. And what complications they’ve managed to create.

Consider state Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, a registered Republican heavily supported by GOP-favored groups in his successful race for re-election against Judge Sam Ervin IV. The high court is to take up a suit from parties objecting to redistricting by Republicans, and those bringing the suit wanted Newby to recuse himself in a case his vote may decide. Why?

His campaign, critics say, got big donations from people and groups with connections to those who drew the new districts. That’s not surprising, and it wouldn’t be if the partisan shoe were on the other foot.

Newby’s campaign was indeed a testament to the power of big dollars from independent groups backing him, including a rather silly ad with a banjo player portraying him as a judge tough on criminals. But Newby doesn’t have to recuse himself from the redistricting case, his colleagues say.

Durham division

The redistricting suit is going to be important, but with the high court dominated by judges inclined to back the new districts (at least, that’s the read from the parties) a challenge is an uphill fight. That’s a shame in a way, because the new districts are downright curious.

When Republicans took control of the General Assembly after the 2010 Census, the win brought more than clout on Jones Street. It extended to Capitol Hill, as GOP legislators had the right to redraw congressional districts. Not surprisingly, they sought to gain a partisan advantage, and they did. A former 7-6 Democratic majority has turned into a 9-4 Republican edge. That’s impressive line drawing by the GOP in a state where registered Democrats exceed Republicans by 43 percent to 30 percent.

In the process, some districts took a few interesting twists and turns, with majority legislators carving out some districts that concentrated Democratic voters and thus diluted the Democrats’ power in others. To get that 9-4 advantage, however, Republicans split some communities into several districts. Durham County, for example, now will have four different members of Congress.

The plus side for the Triangle region is that six members of Congress now will have some constituents in the area. But the down side is that six members of Congress now will have some constituents in the area. Democratic Rep. David Price of the 4th District sees “fragmentation.” Durham with four members of Congress? That’s likely to confuse residents whose representation has changed.

A challenge

To be sure, Democrats sought similar advantage in the makeup of districts when they were drawing the maps as well, and the lines on some of them were just as squiggly as the new ones are. Brad Miller, outgoing five-term representative of the 13th District (which now could be dubbed the former 13th District) had constituents going from Raleigh to Greensboro.

But Republicans, having been out in the cold when it came to this kind of power for generations, took post-Census gerrymandering to a new level. The instinct may be understandable, but the result isn’t really helpful to people. What could help is a redistricting commission, non-partisan or bipartisan, which would draw the lines mindful of political balance but without the drive to gain partisan advantage.

More than 10 states now use such commissions, and movements have risen to do so in others from time to time. The issue’s even been discussed in North Carolina.

It’s not just that districts drawn with the clear aim of giving one party a strong and lasting advantage over the other are an insult to the idea of fairness, but constituents are not well-served when they’re treated as political pawns, which is exactly how they’ve been treated no matter which party is doing the drawing.

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