Point of View

Only hope for NC Democrats is redistricting reform

December 9, 2013 

  • Community meeting

    Groups representing organizations as diverse as the John Locke Foundation and NC Policy Watch have formed a coalition to end gerrymandering. The NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform will hold a community meeting Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Apex Community Center, 53 Hunter St., Apex.

We recently received a request from state Rep. Paul Luebke for a contribution to the Democratic “2014 plan” to oust Republicans from control of the General Assembly.

Because I have known and respected Luebke for many years, we sent a contribution. But given how Republicans have gerrymandered legislative and congressional districts to entrench themselves for the rest of the decade, I question how much headway the Democrats can make.

The request warned of “$4,000 checks” that Republican candidates would be receiving from wealthy donors and corporate special interests. Actually, money that either party spends in the election won’t make much difference. It may not even matter if Republicans have fallen out of favor with the voters.

What will matter is how much the GOP’s 2011 redistricting plan has locked in the current crop of legislators. One way to assess the 2014 outlook is to look at results from 2012. Republican candidates for state House and Senate won 52 percent of the statewide vote, but the party netted 65 percent of General Assembly seats (110 of 170). Democrats won 48 percent of the vote and only 35 percent of seats.

The Democratic strategy for 2014 and beyond lacks any acknowledgment that Democrats helped empower Republicans to enact their extremist agenda in 2013. By refusing to do anything to reform the redistricting process during all their years in power, Democrats gave Republicans a green light to “out-gerrymander” the Democrats when the GOP took control.

One might assume that Democratic politicians are paying the price for their party’s shortsightedness. Unfortunately, the real victims of that shortsightedness – and the real targets of the Republican agenda – have been the poor, the unemployed, minorities, women and people needing health care.

Even without gerrymandering, Republicans would have kept control of the assembly. But their majorities would have been much narrower. A normal majority might have encouraged Gov. Pat McCrory to heed public pressure to shape a more moderate Republican agenda, picking and choosing which bills to sign and which to veto.

But with Republicans holding undeserved, veto-proof majorities in both chambers, McCrory has been reduced to a bystander and a rubber stamp for whatever his party wanted to pass. It will be McCrory who pays the political price in the next statewide election while his legislative cohorts will be shielded inside their gerrymandered districts.

The overall lack of election competition means there aren’t that many seats Democrats can win in 2014. Of the 170 General Assembly contests in 2012, 88 percent were noncompetitive, meaning won by more than 10 percentage points. Many contests were won by 20, 30, 35 points, so more campaign money won’t make much difference. In 44 percent of contests, there was not even a major-party opponent.

That leaves only 12 percent of contests that appear winnable for the opposition. Assuming that half the winnable seats are held by Democrats, then only 6 percent remain for Democrats to take away from Republicans. If they won all the competitive contests, Democrats might increase their seat share from 35 percent to 41 percent – well short of ending Republican control.

I would hope to be proven wrong, but a GOP-controlled legislature could be in place for much of this decade. Over time, voter sentiment will shift. But it could take several election cycles for a Democratic majority to re-emerge.

Until then, Democrats need to make a firm and irrevocable commitment to reform redistricting as early as practicably possible. North Carolina should not endure another decade of self-serving manipulation of election boundaries and endless redistricting lawsuits.

Lee Mortimer of Durham, an election reform advocate, served on a General Assembly Election Laws Review Commission in 1996.

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