NC needs to jettison the joke of gerrymandering

Greensboro News & RecordNovember 7, 2013 

The following editorial appeared in the Greensboro News & Record.

The election law change that could have done the most to restore confidence in state government wasn’t enacted this year. It was introduced in the N.C. House of Representatives April 9 by Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, the speaker pro tem, and other prominent members of both parties. It attracted 61 co-sponsors in all – a majority.

Yet it sat undisturbed in a committee and was never brought up for a vote.

The bill called for a nonpartisan redistricting process. Beginning in 2021, it would give the task of drawing congressional and legislative districts for the state to a professional staff, whose proposals would be subject to legislative approval but not amendment. Once legislators began tinkering with it, objectivity would be lost.

The law would direct the staff to make districts geographically compact, to split counties as little as possible and to show no favoritism to incumbents, political parties or any group.

What a relief that would be. It would put an end to gerrymandering, where legislators carve up the voting population to serve partisan interests and to avoid competitive elections everywhere possible.

The legislature did pass a major package of election law changes this year in what it cynically called an act “to restore confidence in government.” By opening doors to more money in campaigns, closing windows of accountability and seeking partisan advantages, it really will increase distrust in government.

Fair redistricting would build trust by putting candidates from both parties on a level playing field and giving voters honest choices on the ballot. Seventy-four state legislators were elected last year without opposition from the other major party because the outcome was, in effect, predetermined. That’s not democracy.

Gerrymandering makes a joke of elections by creating districts that, when viewed on the map, look like contortionist reptiles, ink blotches or the work of a modernist painter having hallucinations. At a glance, it’s easy to tell the difference between districts drawn by partisan politicians and professionals interested in serving the public’s interest rather than their own.

It isn’t hard to create reasonable districts. Computers can do all the work if programmed with the right instructions. They can create divisions of equal population and geographic integrity. The bill would require a district’s length and width to be roughly equal. How would that compare to North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District that follows I-85 from Charlotte to Greensboro? Or the 1st and 3rd Congressional Districts that criss-cross each other like serpents wrestling across Eastern North Carolina?

The redistricting bill can, and should, be dislodged from committee and approved during the legislature’s short session next spring. Will it? It asks politicians to give up their power to dictate partisan outcomes. But its beauty is that it wouldn’t apply until 2021. No one knows which party will control the legislature then. Both have an equal interest in changing the system so neither gets the short end of the stick.

If they truly want to restore confidence in government, lawmakers will take this important step. Voters should demand it.

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