Point of View

End gerrymandered gridlock with nonpartisan panel, open primaries

March 27, 2014 

When Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry had state Senate districts redrawn in 1812 to benefit his party, a cartoonist described one map as a “salamander.” Two centuries later, oddly shaped districts from gerrymandering still have such nicknames – “bug splat,” “flat-cat road kill” and “ribbon of shame.”

The best-known in the country may be the 12th Congressional District of North Carolina, which straddles Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Greensboro. It is shaped like strands of dental floss.

Deformities like these are an insult to the Constitution of North Carolina and our people. They make a mockery of one person-one vote, lead to polarization by promoting extremes over moderation and cause partisan gridlock that leaves citizens shaking their heads in dismay.

Make no mistake: Democrats and Republicans are both at fault. After each decennial census, the party in power in the General Assembly redraws House, Senate and congressional districts to win as many seats as possible. Like-minded voters are “packed” into one district to reduce their overall voting power. That district becomes a sacrificial pawn for the majority party – one it concedes in order to gain seats, often several seats, elsewhere.

What has changed is that “packing” has been raised to a science by sophisticated software.

This bare-knuckled political redistricting damages our democracy. This year in the 170 state Senate and House races, 78 districts will have just one candidate on the ballot in November. And only 15 to 20 of the remaining races can be considered competitive.

The payoff from gerrymandering can be huge: In 2012 Republican congressional candidates got 1.4 million fewer votes nationwide than Democrats but kept their large majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here in North Carolina, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 81,000 votes in congressional races but lost nine of 13 seats.

Democrats have seized the same advantages when they have been in the majority.

The consequences of noncompetitive elections are terrible. Unaccountable office-holders are less responsive to constituents, hold fewer district meetings and even ignore public opinion because they do not have to worry about re-election.

Worst of all, office-holders gravitate more and more toward extremes, unwilling to seek middle ground, which should be the cornerstone of our democracy.

Today politicians elect politicians in uncompetitive elections that disenfranchise voters and cause extreme policies and gridlock. Our state and nation desperately need citizen-led renewal to restore cooperation, compromise and confidence.

Two fundamental reforms are required.

• First, we need to professionalize the redistricting process to ensure that it is conducted on a strictly nonpartisan basis. We need an amendment to our state constitution mandating that the General Assembly’s staff redraw district lines after each census.

Strict nonpartisan criteria must govern the mapping process so that district lines are compact, communities of interest are recognized and incumbents are not protected. Voter party affiliation and voting history should no longer be considered. Only census data of population, not individual voters or where they live, should be used to draw districts. The staff plan would be submitted to the General Assembly for a vote.

• Second, we should have broader use of the open primary system. Partisan primaries now polarize the base on each side. Office-holders are discouraged from working with the opposition, and those who do are often replaced by hard-liners. We must empower voters in the middle.

A “Top Two” primary – something that we already have in statewide judicial races and most local elections – would go a long way to help. The two candidates who get the most votes – it could be two Republicans or two Democrats – advance to the final round in November. This would also eliminate the need for costly primary runoffs.

The N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform is already hard at work, pushing to turn the mapping process over to the legislature’s permanent staff.

No issue casts a longer and more negative shadow over the future of North Carolina’s democracy.

Charles Meeker served as mayor of Raleigh from 2001 to 2011.

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