Before the 1991 legislative session, two legislative lawyers talked with me about that year’s redistricting.
A new computer program, named TIGER, would solve their two major legal puzzles: drawing legally defensible majority-minority districts and both legislative and U.S. House districts with populations close to the numerical average, a requirement of “one man, one vote.”
There was one drawback, however, they said: Powerful computer programs hold enormous potential for abusive gerrymandering.
They were certainly right about that. In each redistricting since the introduction of such powerful computing, North Carolina legislators have become increasingly effective at shaping the electorate to preserve and enhance the governing party’s control.
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In purple North Carolina, where margins were razor thin in most of the statewide races on Nov. 8, Republicans swept to veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers and a 10-3 majority in the U.S. House delegation. That is, Republican victories were all out of proportion to the overall Republican-Democratic vote.
Can we really call ourselves a democracy when a small vote majority for one party leads to its overwhelming majority in legislative seats? Of course not.
Good-government advocates have long sought a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against political gerrymandering, but hope died with the 1986 Davis v. Bandemer ruling. Justices were sympathetic to equal-protection concerns raised by gerrymandering but couldn’t define the point where it violated the 14th Amendment.
This month, however, a federal district court in Wisconsin renewed hope that the judiciary might finally alleviate political skewing of this nature. The court threw out Wisconsin’s legislative redistricting in a case that could go to the high court.
Writing for Bloomberg News, Professor Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School said the judges have devised a mathematical measure for what constitutes unconstitutional political gerrymandering.
After the 2001 North Carolina redistricting, minority Republicans sued successfully to have a pro-Democratic legislative map overturned, and the N.C. Supreme Court issued guidelines for future redistricting. But that didn’t prevent Republicans in 2011 from drawing plans more stilted than anything Democrats had devised, partly because of ever-more powerful computers.
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond found those maps illegal this year and has ordered our legislative districts redrawn in 2017, but unless the court draws the maps itself, legislative leaders will simply gerrymander us again.
A solution lies outside the courts, one espoused by Republicans for decades but no longer on the legislative radar: an independent redistricting commission.
Responsible leaders from both parties have called for a constitutional amendment creating a nonpartisan panel that would draw maps that preserve communities of interest, protect minorities and maintain county, municipal and precinct lines, when possible. The panel’s charge would be to draw competitive and representative districts.
I’d add a requirement that the commission be locked in a hotel for two weeks and denied any information about the political affiliations of voters or the voting patterns of any precincts.
That might end the practice of politicians choosing their voters rather than the other way around.
Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 38 years