In NC, a successful experiment in democracy

If states are laboratories of democracy and gerrymandering is its existential threat, then the questions facing North Carolina this month are among the most consequential in the nation.

A few weeks ago, a three-judge panel declared almost half of our legislative districts unconstitutional due to extreme partisan gerrymandering. As the remedy, the General Assembly was ordered to draw new maps in two weeks under strict court-ordered rules.

Among the rules: no partisan data, no consultants, and no secret map-drawing. Currently, a court-appointed referee is reviewing the new maps to ensure the list of criteria was followed.

The court-ordered process was a departure from the last 50 years of redistricting. That’s why I find the results even more surprising and generally encouraging.

There was bipartisanship. There was transparency. And as a result, we have fairer maps. One analysis by North Carolina professor Michael Bitzer, showed that the efficiency gap, a metric for “wasted” votes and a proxy for gerrymandering severity, dropped from 11.2% to 3.1% in the Senate maps and 8.7% to 4.7% in the House maps.

Of course, not everyone is happy. I co-lead North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, a bipartisan non-profit. Some folks on our board have been advocating for reform for decades. While we are heartened by what we saw, a scroll through Twitter shows others feel differently.

For some, the problem was that legislators remained involved in the process. That is a defensible position and the principle matters, though removing legislators entirely from the process would require changing North Carolina’s constitution. But is achieving that principle a goal in and of itself, or is the primary goal to produce fair maps with the tools in front of us? Are we fighting for principle or for better outcomes?

Other concerns point to a more fundamental question. Political analysts predict the new maps will still lean Republican, in part due to geography. Democratic clustering in urban areas and Republican dominance in rural areas currently give Republicans a baked-in advantage in randomized maps.

The court-ordered process removed efforts at intentional partisan advantage, as advanced software did not “crack” or “pack” voters, but it did not try to correct the inherent partisan advantage rooted in geography. A mandate for districts to be compact and minimize county line traversals means urban Democratic voters were not spread across rural Republican areas to create more competitive districts.

This is a crucial question: should map drawers try to correct inherent partisan leanings? Do we want passive map drawers who do not consider partisanship? Or do we want activist map drawers who acknowledge partisanship and draw a map that either favors their party or is as politically even as possible, disregarding other factors?

This remedial process is about as passive a process we can get. Yes, legislators intervened to avoid incumbents being “double bunked.” And legislators should think hard about whether incumbency should be considered in the future. But by removing political data from the process, the precise manipulation of district boundaries for political gain did not occur. The bottom line is the process was a meaningful improvement, even it not perfect, and the outcomes were fairer, even if not ideal in everyone’s mind.

Is that enough for advocates? For democracy?

Folks who care about solving this threat to democracy must find their own answers. They should consider what is politically possible. They should seek solutions that produce positive outcomes for all voters. They should put fairness above partisanship. And, they should resist the urge to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. How far can we stretch democracy before it falters? How long do we have until voters give up on our system? I believe this process provides one positive, possible solution. And, I am eager to see the final result. Most of all, I am eager to see us act now to save our grand American experiment in democratic government by eliminating extreme partisan gerrymandering once and for all.

Thomas W. Ross is the Co-Chair of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, the President of the Volcker Alliance and President Emeritus of the University of North Carolina.