Doing it right

April 20, 2013 

Their temptation was perhaps understandable. When elections after the 2010 census gave Republicans who gained a majority in the General Assembly the right to redraw legislative and congressional districts, they took gerrymandering, the skewing of districts to favor one party over another, to the level of art. Only their work was more Picasso than Rembrandt.

Or maybe it was finger-painting. The districts went squiggly here and squiggly there – and just happened to pack likely Democratic voters into a distinct minority of those districts. When all was said and done, Republicans had set themselves up for a 9-4 advantage in North Carolina’s delegation to the U.S. House and created legislative maps that Democrats complained would last until the next Ice Age.

Republicans answered that Democrats who long-controlled the legislature had done the same to them and that turnabout was fair play. They had a point, certainly. And to the extent that Democrats played the gerrymandering game, they were wrong, just as they were wrong to cut Republicans out of the budget-making process for generations in the General Assembly.

But this payback was something to behold. GOP legislative leaders and map-makers took creative district-making to a whole new level.

Downsides

In the process, they confused the public even as they drew districts to their favor. When districts are misshapen to achieve partisan advantage, the representation of constituents, who might have a hard time figuring out just who is their man or woman on Jones Street, suffers. The people, in other words, are not well-served

A state House bill that follows fairly closely a plan used in Iowa since 1980 is promising – and also bipartisan. Leading sponsors include arch Democrat Rep. Deborah Ross and arch Republican Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam (also speaker pro tem), both of Wake County.

According to Bob Phillips, one of state government’s most respected and capable watchdogs with Common Cause, the bill would charge an independent commission with drawing up redistricting maps. “Both Democrats and Republicans like the plan,” he said.

And, something that ought to be significant to Republicans, many business leaders like such a plan because it’s predictable and steady.

Independent commissions have been used successfully to draw districts in the 13 states that have them.

In the past, Republicans have supported trying to depoliticize redistrictingas much as possible – and that includes current House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Should more Republicans be among those backing the new bipartisan bill, they need not fear having to give up power because the commission wouldn’t go to work until after the next census.

Reality and reform

In addition to Stam’s supporting reform, another tough Republican and budget chief for Gov. Pat McCrory, Art Pope, has supported it in the past.

Though they’re certainly basking in their power now, common-sense Republicans know that, in politics, nothing lasts forever. With foresight and, OK, a little imagination, they can predict that if the rough-and-tough redistricting customs of old stay in place, come the next census they might again be out in the cold.

And mainstream GOP leaders, not the tea partyers, can see that polls on a host of social and political issues are showing a marked shift. Gay marriage, for example, recently banned by state constitutional amendment in North Carolina, isn’t nearly as important to poll respondents as it might have been a few years ago. And the diversity of voters in terms of race, background and political philosophy is growing. A party that remains lashed to its old, single-minded viewpoints had best not buy any green bananas during its next political convention.

The pendulum is always swinging in politics, and Republicans and Democrats alike know it.

To have an independent commission rather than lawmakers do any redistricting would diminish the influence of political ideology, which is attractive to those who are interested in a long-term fair fight and not a temporary philosophical victory. It also would recognize the virtues of having districts that make geographic sense and don’t result in dividing voters into districts shaped and split with partisanship first in mind.

Will redistricting reform take the politics out of the process? Not entirely. But it will raise the quotient of common sense in it.

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