The term “gerrymander” arose from an 1812 Massachusetts state Senate district so convoluted for partisan advantage that a cartoonist depicted it as a salamander. Since the mapmaking was done under the control of Gov. Elbridge Gerry, the new political creature was labeled a gerrymander.
Two centuries later, it’s clear the artist saw the outline of the wrong reptile. For what politically contorted districts really resemble is a chameleon. When the party in power shifts, the districts change color.
Republicans and Democrats alike decry gerrymandering when they are in the minority and then impose it with gusto once they regain control. The phenomenon has recently been intensified by advances in computer-assisted mapmaking and Republican willingness to stretch the tactic to the verge of creating a one-party state.
This aggressive gerrymandering has fed political polarization at the federal and state level, contributing to gridlock and a loss of public confidence in the democratic process. But now there are signs that the excess may bring an end to politicians picking their voters.
Federal courts in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Maryland and the state Supreme Court in Pennsylvania have all found partisan gerrymandering a violation of constitutional rights. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court will have to decide the legality, but it’s encouraging that the high court even is considering it. Traditionally, gerrymandering was considered a spoil of political victory and perfectly legal unless it violated the civil rights of minorities. Now gerrymandering in any form is coming under legal scrutiny.
While politicians on both sides await the outcome of the legal challenges, it is not too early for Democrats in North Carolina to commit to ending gerrymandering here.
Republicans, who enjoy veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers and dominate the state’s congressional delegation 10 to 3, won’t give up the redistricting power that supports their advantage. It’s up to Democrats to pledge now that they will support an end to gerrymandering should they regain the majority.
North Carolina State Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat, has moved in that direction by proposing an amendment to the state Constitution that would establish an independent redistricting commission. Republicans, however, dismiss the proposal because it allows the governor an appointment that could tilt the commission in his party’s favor. Since Gov. Roy Cooper is a Democrat, as most North Carolina governors have been, some Republican lawmakers are scoffing at the idea.
The Republican skepticism is understandable. Any commission that includes a partisan advantage defeats the purpose of such a commission. The key is to create a commission in which partisanship is balanced and softened by the inclusion of nonpartisan members. In California, for instance, the 14-member Citizen Redistricting Commission consists of five Republicans, five Democrats and four commissioners of neither major party.
One better approach to redistricting is found in Iowa, where partisanship has been drained out of the process almost entirely. Iowa’s legislative and congressional districts are drawn by a nonpartisan state agency without regard to voter registration data or previous election results. The legislature has up to three opportunities to approve the districts. If it fails, the state Supreme Court decides, but since the nonpartisan approach was adopted in 1980 the legislature has always approved the maps.
Jackson is willing to try whatever improves North Carolina’s contentious and unfair approach, an approach that has triggered 16 legal challenges since 2000, according the N.C. League of Women Voters.
“I’m open to any ideas – so long as we finally end the corruption of gerrymandering on which both parties have relied,” Jackson said.
His Democratic colleagues should share his open commitment to finding a better way. Wayne Goodwin, head of the N.C. Democratic Party, should push to have nonpartisan redistricting as part of the party’s platform and make candidates pledge to support it as a condition of party support.
Given the direction of the political tides – and court rulings potentially forcing less gerrymandered maps – Democrats may win control of the legislature before the next redistricting in 2021. But it will be a loss for everyone if under Democratic control the gerrymander, chameleon-like, turns blue.