Democrats will pick up at least 26 seats and take a majority in the House of Representatives if preliminary results from last Tuesday’s midterm elections hold. But partisan gerrymandering is still a major issue. Our analysis of North Carolina’s results shows that the party would almost certainly have won more if Republicans hadn’t deliberately drawn districts to limit Democratic chances.
North Carolina’s congressional district lines are already the subject of federal litigation claiming they give Republicans a systematic, unconstitutional advantage in winning seats. The Nov. 6 results bear those claims out. Democrats won roughly 50 percent of the vote in North Carolina, their best performance in almost a decade. But despite an extraordinary year, they netted just three of the state’s 13 congressional seats — the same as in 2014 and 2016. That happened because a promising Democratic wave crashed against one of the country’s most extreme gerrymanders.
To engineer this advantage, the leaders of the Republican caucus worked in secret with a consultant to pack likely Democrats into three super-blue districts. In each of these districts, Democrats would win by very large margins. The Republican mapmakers then spread the rest of the state’s Democrats more thinly across the remaining 10 districts, ensuring Republican candidates would win by small, but safe, margins.
With this scientific slicing and dicing of voters, it didn’t matter if Democrats got 30 percent of the statewide vote or 50 percent, as they did this year. In fact, Democrats didn’t stand a chance of picking up a fourth seat unless they could net 52.5 percent of the statewide vote, something they achieved only once since 2000, in the 2008 election.
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Increased Democratic votes were mostly wasted in the state’s three reliably blue districts. Indeed, the Democrats’ average margin of victory in these three districts rose from 18 percentage points in 2016 to an astonishing 23 points in 2018. Still, running up the vote in those districts didn’t send any more Democrats from North Carolina to Congress.
Meanwhile, in the state’s Republican districts, Democrats were spread too thin for even a robust increase in support to help. All in all, Republicans won their districts with an average margin of six points, showing the Republicans’ cracking strategy also playing out as intended.
All of this has continued to leave North Carolina Democrats with only 23 percent of the congressional delegation even though they won roughly half of the state’s votes in House races. Indeed, despite North Carolina’s well-established purple-state status, its congressional delegation remains overwhelmingly Republican. And that goes back to the basic design of the map.
The only way to put a stop to this is to remake North Carolina’s map and the state’s redistricting process. The Supreme Court can help do both this spring by striking down the map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander and putting some laws in place to limit the worst redistricting abuses. A strong ruling from the court would not only require the legislature to draw a new, fairer map for 2020 but also set the ground rules for the next round of redistricting in 2021.
There also might be some hope for legislative redistricting reforms ahead of 2021, if Republicans become sufficiently scared that a blue tsunami in 2020 could sweep away their long-standing majority in the state legislature and, with it, their control over the state’s next redistricting process. The threat of a Democratic gerrymander in 2021 might be enough to put the state’s Republicans in a bargaining mood.
However, until courts or civic-minded legislators step in to fix a broken redistricting process, the gerrymander is still very much threatening American democracy.
Thomas Wolf is counsel in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. Peter Miller is a researcher there.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Post.