Three Californians have come to North Carolina this week like characters in a Jules Verne novel. They’re journeying into the past to rescue the people of a lost world still ruled by a shape-shifting creature called the gerrymander.
The three members of California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission are touring what may be the nation’s most extremely gerrymandered state with a message of how to regain democracy: Adopt an independent redistricting system where voters — not political mapmakers — decide elections.
The visitors here at the invitation of Common Cause of North Carolina and Blueprint North Carolina, a network of social justice organizations. One of them, Cynthia Dai, a Democrat, said North Carolina, like much of the nation, has lost its democracy to gerrymandering, but “in California, we grabbed it back.”
That pullback came in the form of a 2008 proposition backed by then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to take legislative redistricting out of the hands of politicians and give it to a 14-member citizens commission of five Democrats, five Republicans and four members not affiliated with either major party. A 2010 proposition expanded the commission’s authority to include congressional redistricting. The commission approved its first map of new congressional and legislative districts in 2011.
Redistricting occurs every 10 years to adjust election districts to population shifts shown by the national Census. Four states including California use independent commissions to redistrict.
Other members on the trip are Libert “Gil” Ontai, a Republican, and Connie Malloy, an unaffiliated voter. The commissioners will be preaching the healing power of independent redistricting this week in Durham, Fayetteville and Asheville.
Malloy said the independent redistricting movement arose from a low point when Californians were fed up with the legislature and had recently recalled Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. That frustration gave rise to the movement to end partisan redistricting and the entrenched, unresponsive political power it supports.
“Ten years ago California was broken,” she said Tuesday during a visit to The News & Observer. “It has been a process of ‘how do citizens take back their government so it works on their behalf?’ ”
The process involves an elaborate outreach to citizens. More than 30,000 people applied to serve on the commission. Those applicants were culled by state auditors down to a pool of 36. From that group, eight commissioners were randomly selected. Those commissioners reviewed the remaining applicants and selected the final six commissioners.
The process, along with a primary system that advances the top two vote-getters to the general election regardless of party, has reinvigorated California politics with new faces in office, more consensus among lawmakers and a more popular legislature. A poll in May found the approval rating of the California state legislature at 44 percent, up from 10 percent in 2010. (The approval rating topped 50 percent in 2016.) A January poll by Public Policy Polling put the N. C. General Assembly’s approval rating at 19 percent.
Bringing independent redistricting to North Carolina will be harder than in California. Voters here cannot put propositions on the ballot, but they can elect legislators who are willing to give up the ability to shape districts in their favor and give that power to citizens.
The key is to convince voters it’s possible. Ontai said, “A lot of the malaise is people thinking they can’t make a difference.”
But they can, if they’re moved from discouragement to determination. “People have to get angry enough to get change,” Dai said.
The citizens of North Carolina should be angry enough. Republican lawmakers drew their party a 10-3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation and supermajorities in the state House and Senate.
California is showing the way to defeat the gerrymander and take democracy back. That way starts in November.