Gerrymandering drains democracy from 2014 state elections

March 3, 2014 

Elections that will shape the future of North Carolina took place last Friday, and no one voted.

They weren’t official elections, but they will have the same effect. Friday was the filing deadline for candidates. In nearly one-third of the General Assembly’s races, only one candidate filed and in effect became the winner. After primaries, 78 seats – or 46 percent of the legislature – will have only one major party candidate in the general election. In 2012, there were 67 uncontested races.

What makes the number of uncontested races remarkable is that it has occurred during a period of intense debate over state government policies and laws passed by the Republican-led General Assembly.

More than 900 people were willing to be arrested to express their opposition during Moral Monday protests at the legislature. Many Republican and independent voters pushed back, saying Republican lawmakers and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory were taking North Carolina in the right direction. But when the time came to direct those strong feelings into standing for election, many chose not to bother.

The reason isn’t a lack of will. It’s an acceptance of reality. The redistricting process that follows the census every 10 years has become so partisan that many districts are heavily stacked toward one party. Because Republicans took over the General Assembly in the 2010 election, they got to redraw the legislative and congressional district lines in a way that favors Republican candidates.

Democrats did the same when they were in power. This time, though, the Republicans were especially brazen about making the lines partisan. Improvements in mapping technology have made the work even more precise and effective.

When they were out of power, Republicans called for changing the redistricting process to a nonpartisan one. But now that their handiwork has helped create veto-proof majorities in the state House and Senate and helped to flip the state’s congressional delegation from 7-6 Democratic to 9-4 Republican, redistricting reform has slipped off the Republicans’ wish list. Indeed, some Republicans sound content with the practice of politicians choosing their voters.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, one of the authors of the lopsided Republican map, told WRAL that the withering of the democratic process in filling nearly half of the state’s legislative seats reflects the contentment of voters. “Many of the constituents in our state are pleased with the representation they have and don’t feel the need to file to replace their current member of the House or Senate,” he said.

But Lewis knows well that the rise in uncontested races is hardly an expression of contentment. He’s a defendant in a lawsuit brought by voters and civil and voting rights groups seeking to have the maps thrown out. The maps were upheld by a three-judge panel, but the case has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

It’s important for democracy that the plaintiffs prevail in the redistricting suit. But it’s even more important that the General Assembly move to end redistricting as a political process. Iowa, for one, has nonpartisan legislative staff members draw its lines. The results are more districts where members of both major parties have a reasonable chance to win and that makes for a better reflection of the voters’ will.

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, is leading his group’s push for nonpartisan redistricting. The current system, he said, disenfranchises voters and reduces lawmakers’ need to be responsive to a more diverse electorate.

Taking politics out of the redistricting process is essential to bringing true politics – the art of compromise – back to the legislative process. Otherwise, voters are locked out, lawmakers are locked in and polarization rules.

Phillips said of redistricting, “Until we solve this one, it will be hard to solve anything else.”

And that – not seats – is what should be uncontested.

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