When I was coaching my son’s Little League baseball team in Durham a few years ago, a friend observed that he could tell the political affiliation of every parent umpire by whether they called their own kid “out” or “safe.” Liberal dads, seeking to appear fair-minded, invariably called their kid “out,” even if he or she was “safe” by a mile, he said. Conservative umps, by contrast, happily called their kids “safe,” even if tagged by the catcher. I laughed and nodded when my liberal friend said that — until I heard the same story told in reverse by a conservative parent, who complained to me that liberal umpire parents always called their kids “safe.”
Like the game of baseball, politics is a game of rules, some obscure, others obvious, but all important. In baseball, if the first baseman catches the ball before the runner reaches the plate, he or she is “out.” In our democracy, each citizen is, in theory, equal: one person, one vote. If you get more votes, you win.
In baseball as in politics, nobody really loves umpires. But without them, there would be no game. Parents may yell at the umpire. But we all value their presence when tempers flare.
Here in North Carolina, the umpires have spoken. In August, a federal three-judge panel struck down our state’s congressional maps as unconstitutional because they deliberately silence Democratic voters. They demanded new maps be drawn that are fair, competitive and constitutional. It was late in the campaign, though, with the primaries already behind us, and demanding new maps so late would have caused confusion. So the plaintiffs in the partisan gerrymandering case, of which I am one, chose the high road. We agreed new maps should be drawn after the election, but well ahead of the next congressional election.
Last week’s election outcomes make clear why the judges issued such a forceful ruling. Democratic candidates for Congress received 51 percent of all votes cast for congressional candidates statewide, up from 46 percent in 2016. But just three Democratic members of Congress were elected, while Republican candidates won 10 seats. Democrats should have taken an outright majority of house seats. But instead the blue wave ran into an illegal gerrymander. If the election was a baseball game, gerrymandering would be an ump who took runs scored by Democrats and divided them in half.
My fellow citizens who vote Republican should take no comfort from these results or the fraudulent process that produced it. Here’s why. The gerrymander makes all politicians of both parties less accountable to voters. When election outcomes are essentially pre-determined, when all seats are “safe,” our representatives in congress have little reason to listen to voters of either party.
More important, gerrymandering devalues the legitimacy of democracy itself. As partisans and as competitors, most of us want the same thing at the end of every game or election. We want to know, when we win, that it was real, not some sham produced by a rigged system. We want to know that each run counts the same, that in our democracy underdogs can still win, that the voices of citizens still have power, whoever they are.
I want my liberal friend, who believes Republicans are happy to cheat their way to “victory,” to be wrong. To my fellow citizens who are Republicans, I urge you to prove him wrong. Defend our common voting rights by expanding access to voting, not restricting it. Join the effort to abolish gerrymandering, and make all elected officials compete for the votes of the citizens who hire them. Let’s compete for the hearts and minds of every one of our citizens, not just those who already agree with us. Let’s compete fairly, for the love of the game and for the sake of our beloved democracy.
Gunther Peck teaches history at Duke University and is a plaintiff in the League of Women Voters of North Carolina v. Rucho, a partisan gerrymandering challenge to North Carolina’s congressional district map that is expected to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court later this term.