Rob Christensen

Christensen: Gerrymandered districts denied NC voters a real choice

Last week, North Carolina voters booted out Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in large part because she was tied to her party’s unpopular president.

President Barack Obama had an approval rating of 39.7 percent in the state, according to the Elon University Poll, and an unfavorable rating of 52.1 percent.

This is how democracy is supposed to work. If your party and its leadership is in disfavor, you pay the political price at the polls.

But it doesn’t always work that way.

Even more unpopular than the president is the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. Its approval rating, according to the poll, is 30.3 percent with a disapproval rating of 54.7 percent.

But the legislature was not penalized for its unpopularity. The Republicans in the state Senate actually gained a seat, giving them a 34-16 advantage over Democrats. The House Republicans did slightly worse, losing three seats, but they still maintain a 74-46 edge.

Even more unpopular than the president and the legislature is Congress with a disapproval rating of 79.4 percent. But not only were House Republicans not punished by voters, in North Carolina, they picked up a seat. They now hold a 10-3 majority.

Welcome to voter-proof districts.

Democrats have long engaged in gerrymandering – using the court required re-aligning of districts for political purposes. But at least under the Democratic gerrymanders, the GOP had a fighting chance and did in fact win control of the state House in the mid 1990s and the entire legislature in 2010.

The Republicans, however, are the Picasso’s of gerrymandering, aided by increasingly sophisticated computer programs and redistricting experts.

If any year should have produced competitive legislative races, it should have been this one, coming as it did after one of the most consequential legislative sessions in modern North Carolina history that brought policy changes to education, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, fracking, voting laws and abortion.

We got some debate, but not nearly what we deserved, because the state has been carved up into little Republican and Democratic fiefdoms that don’t really have to answer to a cross section of voters.

Of the 120 state House seats, all of which were up for re-election last week, 61 of the candidates had no major opposition. Only 16 seats were somewhat competitive – that is the winner won with 55 percent or less of the vote. In the Senate, 20 of the 50 seats had only one major party candidate, and only six were competitive.

With so many seats a virtual lock of one party or the other, it would take extraordinary circumstances to change control of the legislature. I am trying to think what that might be: A doubling of taxes? Tearing down of the Capitol to erect a taco stand?

At least there were a few competitive state legislative races. There was no competition for the 13 U.S. House seats. The closest congressional race was 13th District Republican George Holding’s 57.3 to 42.6 percent victory over Democrat Brenda Cleary.

So in one of the most divided purple states in the country, there was nearly a 15 point gap in the closest congressional race. That is what monopoly politics brings you.

(I should note that in a midterm election which favored Republicans, the GOP collected more overall votes statewide in the congressional and legislative races than did the Democrats.)

The way the system is now rigged, the vast majority of North Carolina voters had no real choice when they cast their ballots. If they lived in a Republican district, they got a GOP lawmaker, and if they lived in a Democratic district, they got a Democratic lawmaker.

Such districts mean voters are denied any real say in the direction of their government. It tends to close the window on free and open debate. It discourages compromise, and it sows the fields for future corruption.

The only people who gain are the officeholders, most of whom no longer have to worry that the voters are looking over their shoulders.

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