Commentary

Christensen: Gerrymandering in NC results in few competitive races

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJanuary 7, 2014 

If distinguished international visitors – say from Belgium and Finland – observed North Carolina’s elections they would have a difficult time describing the state’s political system as a meaningful democracy.

The system has become so rigged through redistricting that voting in general elections has become almost meaningless. Take the last congressional elections – the first held under the new district lines drawn by the Republican legislature.

Although 2,218,357 (50.6 percent) voters cast their ballots in the 13 House races for Democrats and 2,137,167 (48.7 percent) cast their ballots for Republicans, the delegation changed from a 7-6 Democratic majority to a 9-4 Republican majority.

This is the kind of election that only a Vladimir Putin or a Robert Mugabe would love.

This kind of gerrymandering has also led to endless court battles. On Monday, the N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments on a legal challenge to the 2011 redistricting plan.

Democrats have engaged in gerrymandering for years, of course. But the Republicans have taken it to even more ridiculous levels. (The GOP was at least given a fighting chance. After the two previous redistrictings under the Democrats in 1990 and 2000, the Republicans won majorities in the state House.)

Backroom dealing

I have been complaining about our rigged political system for years when Democrats were in control of redistricting.

In November 2004, I wrote that the previous election was “one that an old-style apparatchik could appreciate: an election with one-party rule, little competition and sometimes – best of all – no election whatsoever.”

Or as I wrote in 2002, “the grubby backroom dealing, gerrymandering and judge-shopping in the legislative imbroglio has done nothing but feed public cynicism about the General Assembly, politics, the courts and democracy.”

It is a natural tendency for elected officials to create safe districts to help keep their parties in power, and to make it easier for incumbents to stay in office without having to explain votes to the public.

“It’s like in the DNA of politicians,” former U.S. Rep. Bill Cobey, a former state GOP chairman, said back in 2006. “If they have an opponent – it could be like Humpty Dumpty – it will scare them to death.

“North Carolina’s voters deserve choice in who they elect,” Cobey said. “But come November, most voters won’t have a choice. There is something wrong with democracy in our state.”

Cobey made his comments at a time when the bipartisan N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform launched its campaign in 2006 to persuade the then Democratic-controlled legislature to create a nonpartisan independent redistricting commission such as exists now in 12 states.

Nonpartisan commission

The group is still at it. About 50 residents attended a meeting on a recent night at the Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh. It was mostly Democratic lawmakers who showed up.

When the group, also about 50 people, recently held a similar meeting in Apex, there was stronger Republican representation, including House Speaker Pro Tem Skip Stam of Apex, a longtime supporter of an independent commission, GOP Rep. Tom Murry of Morrisville, and a representative of the conservative John Locke Foundation. Art Pope, the Raleigh businessman, conservative financier, and budget director for Gov. Pat McCrory, is a longtime supporter of an independent commission.

The group is pushing for a nonpartisan commission after the 2020 census, when no one is sure which party will be in control.

A bill passed the Republican-controlled state House in 2011 that would require the nonpartisan legislative staff to draw up the districts with the legislature allowed to vote up or down, but not change it.

The measure stalled in the Senate, but Stam is optimistic that it will pass both houses once the legal challenges over the current redistricting plans are resolved.

Meanwhile, the coalition cites how uncompetitive our elections have become.

Only one of 13 congressional races in North Carolina was competitive last time. Ninety-one percent of the state House races were noncompetitive, and 86 percent of the Senate races were noncompetitive. In roughly one half of the legislative races, the incumbent had no major party opponent.

This is occurring in one of the most closely divided states in the country, and where the legislature is making major policy changes on issues such as taxes, unemployment insurance, health benefits and schools.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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