Rob Christensen

Whatever the courts decide on NC’s map, the system is rigged

Members of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting review historical voting maps at the NC legislature on Feb. 16, 2016.
Members of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting review historical voting maps at the NC legislature on Feb. 16, 2016. News & Observer

The new political buzzword is fake news. But how about fake elections?

By that, I mean elections in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion no matter the quality of the candidates, the issues of the day, the record of Congress, or how well the candidates put forth their arguments.

If I can sit down in January and write a November election night story, just leaving some blanks where I can fill in the numbers – as I have been able to do in recent years – did voters really have a choice or was it an illusion?

A three-judge federal panel this month ruled that the congressional maps North Carolina has been using this decade – revised under court order in 2016 – are unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.

The case could very well be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But whatever the courts decide, the congressional game in North Carolina is so rigged that no self-respecting bookie would take any action on it.

If this were the NFL, the FBI would be investigating. If this were business, the gumshoes from the U.S. Justice Department would be snooping around for anti-trust violations.

During the most recent congressional elections in 2016, not a single one of the 13 congressional seats was competitive – if you define competitive as the loser coming within 10 points of the top finisher.

On average, the winners beat the losers by a 62 to 37.7 percent margin.

That is not a fluke. There were no competitive congressional seats in North Carolina in the previous election in 2014 either.

In 2012 – the first year the congressional elections were held under the Republican plan, there were three close races, but that is mainly because Republicans were unseating Democrats under the new plan developed by Republicans.

That year, the North Carolina congressional delegation flipped from a 7-6 Democratic majority to a 9-4 Republican majority, and then the following year moved to a 10-3 Republican majority where it has been ever since.

This is, of course, how the Republican legislature drew it up after the 2010 census with the aid of sophisticated computer programming and national redistricting gurus.

State Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, one of the chief mapmakers, was refreshingly honest when he said: “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

This reminds me of the famous quote by Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt, who said: “There’s honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’: ‘I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.’”

Now it is theoretically possible for a congressman to lose in the general election, but I don’t know what it would take. Robbing a bank? Trolling for underage girls at the mall? In today’s environment, the congressman who was caught would probably say he was just the victim of fake news.

Members of Congress can still lose in a primary if they anger their party’s ideologues by not being sufficiently conservative (a Republican) or sufficiently liberal (a Democrat.)

All of this is happening in one of the most closely divided states in the country. Most of our statewide elections are close, including races for governor, president and the U.S. Senate.

Perhaps, you say, Congress members are getting re-elected by such huge margins because people think they are doing such a bang-up job. Go with that if you like.

The other retort is, well, the Democrats did it too. This is sort of like mobsters saying the other crime family started the shooting.

For the record, I wrote several columns when the Democrats were in control of the legislature comparing the redistricting system to Soviet-style elections.

Give the Republicans credit. They were more efficient – or ruthless – in drawing the lines. During the last congressional election held under the Democratic maps in 2010, there were four congressional races that were competitive.

So why should you care? If the system is rigged, members of Congress really don’t have to come home to explain their votes. They don’t have to hold town hall meetings. They don’t have to reach out to moderate swing voters. They really don’t even have to campaign hard back in the district.

The current system rewards the most ideologically-driven candidates. Right now there is little reward for working with colleagues to reach compromises.

It is one reason people feel so powerless about what happens in Washington.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, @oldpolhack