As lawmakers returned to Raleigh last week, so did the air of political conflict. Protesters beat pots and pans outside the Legislative Building, teachers demonstrated for more pay and Republican lawmakers quickly drew up new rules to control the Moral Monday protests that will resume this week.
Yet for all the passion that arises over ideology and issues in Raleigh, the electoral landscape is serene. Nearly half the 170 members of the General Assembly will stand for re-election this fall without a challenger. Few, if any of the state’s 13 congressional districts will be truly contested.
We live now in a state of suspended democracy. How voters feel overall has little to do with who gets elected – or even challenged. Some of this is the fault of citizens who don’t vote – a choice Republicans are encouraging by making the process more inconvenient. But mostly it is because of the cynical inversion of gerrymandering that enables politicians to pick their voters.
Fortunately, former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot are leading an effort to revive the democratic process. They’ve formed a group called North Carolinians to End Gerrymandering Now and are campaigning for fundamental changes in the way voting districts are drawn.
“Gerrymandering means you don’t have meaningful elections,” Meeker said.
The push for nonpartisan redistricting has picked up the support of 40 mayors. Though some Republican leaders of the General Assembly are cool to the idea, one leading House Republican, Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex, has not wavered in his longtime support for the reform he first proposed in 1989.
At a voters forum on nonpartisan redistricting, he said, “It gives you a bigger choice and it doesn't insulate somebody with a lot seniority from a challenge. Our current system lets people with a lot of seniority get maps drawn for their benefit.”
Meeker, a Democrat, and Vinroot, a Republican, are urging state lawmakers to put a state constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot calling for a nonpartisan redistricting system. Meeker says the time to weigh the change is during the 2015 long session because lawmakers will be less threatened since the 2020 election will be five years away and the winning party uncertain. If approved, the new system would take effect when voting maps are redrawn after the 2020 census.
With Republicans in full control of state government, a campaign that asks them to put their power at risk in the name of fairness seems both idealistic and doomed. But somehow it must succeed, and it can if enough people shake off their sense of futility and demand change. A Public Policy Polling survey this month found that 45 percent support nonpartisan redistricting with only 18 percent opposed; the rest had no opinion.
The noncompetitive effects of gerrymandered districts afflict the entire nation. Officer-holders who have no fear of losing an election have no incentive to moderate their views, compromise on laws or listen to those they disagree with. But the problem is particularly acute in North Carolina.
Of course, Democrats drew districts in their favor during their many decades in power. But it has never been done with the audacity or efficiency of the Republicans in 2011. After more than a century out of power, the GOP took full advanrage of its chance to draw the lines. Their handiwork flipped the state’s congressional delegation from 7-6 in favor of the Democrats to 9-4 in favor of Republicans. It also turned the once lonely and neglected Republican presence in the General Assembly into lopsided majorities in the House and Senate. Last week, an analysis by the Washington Post’s Wonkblog found North Carolina to be one of the nation’s most gerrymandered states.
The GOP redistricting maps face a legal challenge, but Republicans were as careful about staying within the letter of the law as they were in threading lines through precincts. Changing the map-making process will depend on their willingness to let others draw democracy.