In NC, gerrymandering takes a toll on democracy

Eric Sanburg and his wife, Martha (not pictured) drove from Salisbury to take part in the “Rally to End Gerrymandering” sponsored by the political action group Common Cause. The March 1 rally on the Bicentennial Plaza in Raleigh attracted over 200 people.
Eric Sanburg and his wife, Martha (not pictured) drove from Salisbury to take part in the “Rally to End Gerrymandering” sponsored by the political action group Common Cause. The March 1 rally on the Bicentennial Plaza in Raleigh attracted over 200 people. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Imagine that after each year’s Super Bowl the winning team got to rewrite the rules of the game, tweaking them to play to its particular strengths, increasing its chances of victory in subsequent seasons.

That’s essentially how America’s electoral system functions today. In most states, including North Carolina, the party that holds the most legislative seats after the decennial census invariably draws districts designed to cement its dominance for the coming decade and beyond.

The fallout is inevitable: a raft of lawsuits that cost taxpayers millions of dollars; a series of judicial orders that leave voters bewildered and in limbo; a proliferation of safe seats that drives the two parties even farther apart; and gridlocked governance that saps faith in democracy.

There is a saner, fairer way. Just as the rules of any sport are written and enforced by an independent body rather than the contestants themselves, nearly half the states use appointed commissions to shape districts for the state legislature and Congress.

In North Carolina, bills to create such a panel are awaiting action in both the House and Senate. The house version, H200, has 39 sponsors, both Republican and Democrat. Regrettably, it was referred to the Rules Committee, whose chairman, David Lewis, also chaired the 2011 committee that drew the maps.

Similarly, Sen. Bill Rabon, whose Rules Committee has custody of the Senate version, S209, also had a hand in the map-drawing. Absent pressure from voters, they may well hold the bills hostage. And time is growing short: If neither bill receives a favorable vote and is not sent to the other chamber by April 27, the issue is dead for this session.

The case for action couldn’t be clearer. North Carolina is the poster child for gerrymandering that effectively renders many citizens’ votes worthless. Although races for statewide offices such as governor and senator often produce squeakers, the GOP – which controlled the statehouse during the 2011 redistricting process – wields lopsided advantages in the General Assembly and congressional delegation.

How skewed are the districts? So skewed that when experts evaluated the fairness of districts in all 50 states for the Electoral Integrity Project, North Carolina ranked dead last. Its score: 7 of a possible 100.

Arguably, that’s just politics – a blood sport that rightly rewards those smart and strategic enough to lay the groundwork for controlling the redistricting process. After all, Democrats practiced the fine art of gerrymandering with gusto when they ruled the statehouse.

But gerrymandering has real costs – costs that all North Carolinians pay, whether they realize it or not. And it doesn’t much matter whether the gerrymandering is primarily along racial or partisan lines. In practice the two are intimately linked, since whites predominantly vote for Republicans and blacks predominantly vote for Democrats.

To start, there’s the cost of defending against the court challenges that spring up as predictably as daffodils in March whenever the maps are redrawn. A tally last August put the cost to the state’s taxpayers of defending the latest crop of redistricting lawsuits at more than $3.5 million (plus $4.5 million to defend its voter ID law).

Those figures are significant, but they’re not the worst of it. Far more costly in the long run are the rancor, distrust and dysfunction spawned by partisan-driven redistricting.

Trust in our legislative bodies has plummeted in recent years just as the number of safe seats has soared. Those are seats that are a lock for one party or the other; in many cases they favor candidates on the ideological fringes.

More hard-liners in office means less willingness to work across the aisle to actually govern. Stalemate ensues, with each party bent on painting the other as the one to blame, or, even worse, an enemy of all that is desirable and right.

That is good for no one – save, perhaps, the incumbents who exploit distrust and division as a form of job security.

It won’t be easy to persuade those same legislators to hand over the task of drawing electoral districts to a panel of appointees. Constituents must clamor loudly enough to persuade them that maintaining the status quo will endanger, not guarantee, their re-election.

Sports leagues go to great lengths to ensure the fairness and impartiality of their enterprises – or at least to project the image of fairness and impartiality. They do it because they know that a game regarded as rigged will lose fans and wither.

So here’s the question: Are the people of North Carolina willing to accept less integrity in the electoral process than they are in their sports leagues? If so, we all lose.

A retired journalist, Victoria Loe Hicks has written about redistricting since 1981. She lives in Mitchell County and is active in Indivisible Yancey/Mitchell.