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, its 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 theyve 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. Thats not surprising, and it wouldnt be if the partisan shoe were on the other foot.
Newbys 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 doesnt have to recuse himself from the redistricting case, his colleagues say.
The redistricting suit is going to be important, but with the high court dominated by judges inclined to back the new districts (at least, thats the read from the parties) a challenge is an uphill fight. Thats 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. Thats 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? Thats likely to confuse residents whose representation has changed.
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 isnt 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 issues even been discussed in North Carolina.
Its 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 theyre treated as political pawns, which is exactly how theyve been treated no matter which party is doing the drawing.