Legislature: Return to constitutional principles in 2017

Senators Dan Soucek, left, and Brent Jackson, right, review historical district maps during The Senate Redistricting Committee for the 2016 special session in the Legislative Office Building.
Senators Dan Soucek, left, and Brent Jackson, right, review historical district maps during The Senate Redistricting Committee for the 2016 special session in the Legislative Office Building. clowenst@newsobserver.com

Reading the North Carolina Constitution is inspiring – take Article I, Section 2: “All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.” Language like that – that the legislature is bound to work for the good of the people – is all too rare in Raleigh these days.

A big piece of the problem stems from legislative districts. In 2016, Republicans won about 52 percent of votes for House seats and 56 percent for Senate. But because of districts drawn for the benefit of legislators, not the public, they won over 60 percent of the House and 70 percent of the Senate. That means about 10 seats in the House and six in the Senate were chosen not because of the “will of the people” but because of how the districts were drawn. Those seats make the difference between simply a Republican majority and the veto-proof power they now hold

It’s true, and to the Democratic Party’s enduring shame, that they used their majority to draw unfair districts too. But the extent of their meddling was much less severe. In the House, Democratic over-representation from 2002-2010 averaged about 5 percent, or 3 seats. By contrast, Republican over-representation in 2012-2016 was 10 percent and nearly 14 seats. In the Senate, Democratic over-representation in 2002-2010 was 8 percent or 5 seats; Republican over-representation, however, jumped to 13 percent – over 8 seats – in 2012-2016.

Furthermore, in 2016 there were 53 seats in the House (25 Republican, 28 Democratic) and 13 in the Senate (10 Republican, 3 Democratic) in which the winner had no opponent at all. All voters in those districts are harmed, regardless of their political views. A vigorous opposition holds a representative’s feet to the fire, making him or her have to explain and defend positions to the public. But a representative with no plausible threat from an opponent is never forced to explain actions or consider objections. These “safe” districts (safe for legislators, certainly not for democracy!), and others where opponents have no plausible chance of victory, hurt the good of the whole. Competitive districts, by contrast, make Republicans better Republicans and Democrats better Democrats, and they serve the Constitution’s ideal of political power founded on the will of the people.

In place of jockeying for power, we should use objective evidence to compare our state’s actual practice to the constitutional ideal of a legislature that actually represents the votes of the people. The evidence on that is clear: The current districts fail dramatically on that standard, and – as UNC Professor Andrew Reynolds pointed out in a recent N&O piece – on the standards to which we hold other countries.

To be sure, many Republicans see a different threat to fair representation: voter fraud. If many people who are not entitled to vote do so, that threatens the Constitution’s assignment of power to the people. As of now, there is no credible evidence for fraud at anywhere near levels that would inhibit the constitutional ideal. What evidence does exist is largely anecdotes, conjectures and small numbers. Any policy that prevents fraud by making voting harder will likely also make it harder for legitimate voters to vote; preventing one fraudulent vote at the cost of five or 10 legitimate ones is a net loss for our constitutional standard. But a nonpartisan, evidence-based effort to assess and improve the integrity of elections would help restore confidence.

Leaders who are genuinely interested in representing the will of the people should be eager to gather and examine the best evidence and base policies on that evidence. Certainly we should be able to agree that everyone who is entitled to vote ought to be able to do so; that nobody who is not entitled to vote should be able to do so; and that nobody’s legitimate vote should be diminished because they live in a district drawn for the convenience of a legislator (Republican or Democrat) instead of the good of the people.

When the new legislature convenes, they’ll have to draw new districts in time for the court-ordered special election in the fall. Republicans and Democrats alike ought to take this as an opportunity to reset and reconfigure their outlook away from hyper-partisan power struggles and back to the constitutional mandate of the public good.

First, the new legislature should tackle the required redistricting by setting objective, evidence-based and party-neutral systems in place. Empower a nonpartisan commission to draw districts according to a neutral algorithm to provide the people with the best possible representation and competitive elections. Second, do the same with voter fraud: convene an objective, evidence-based and party-neutral commission to gather the evidence and recommend policies that reinforce voting by everyone entitled to vote and prevent voting by everyone not so entitled.

Toward the end of Article I, Section 35 reminds us that “a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.” It’s high time to follow that wise advice. The legislature should make 2017 the year they recur to fundamental principles and restore political power to the people for the good of the whole.

Andrew J. Perrin is Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His latest book is “American Democracy: From Tocqueville to Town Halls to Twitter.”