Ask most political scientists, and they'll tell you that the media fretting over gerrymandering is often overblown. It's a factor, sure, but it isn't the sole driver of political polarization—the not-gerrymandered U.S. Senate has polarized nearly as much as the U.S. House—or the only reason Democrats struggle to win legislative and congressional majorities.
"Redistricting isn't everything," says N.C. State political science professor Andrew Taylor. "Institutions aren't everything. There's something else going on."
Another, perhaps bigger culprit is self-segregation: liberals cram into urban areas, where Democrats rack up huge margins. Conservatives spread out in exurbs and rural areas, where Republicans win more seats by slightly smaller margins. That happens absent any legislative chicanery.
Even so, North Carolina's 2011 gerrymander is a special case. The districts passed by the legislature locked in an immovable 10–3 GOP advantage, packing every available minority voter into those three blue districts and allowing Republicans elsewhere to coast. November elections became meaningless, and races were decided in the primaries, which encourages extremism.
Republicans weren't coy about their motives: this was overtly political.
Political gerrymandering, by the way, is constitutionally permissible (or, at least, the courts haven't said it isn't). Racial gerrymandering is not. Writing for a three-judge panel earlier this month, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Roger Gregory ruled that, despite Republican protestations, he wasn't convinced that the "redistricting was purely a politically driven affair." Thus, the map violated the Voting Rights Act. (When African-Americans comprise such a strong Democratic bloc, overlap between partisan and racial interests is probably unavoidable.)
So last week, lawmakers took another crack at it. The new map they rushed to cobble together looks different—most notably, the Twelfth Congressional District, which formerly snaked from Charlotte to Winston-Salem, only twenty miles wide at its widest point, is now confined to Mecklenburg County—but it accomplishes the same goal: an immovable 10–3 split. Once again, absent a political tsunami, November is meaningless, and races are decided in the primaries.
Not surprisingly, the new map has already come under fire. On Monday, the state NAACP announced that it will ask federal judges to toss these districts and replace them with their own creation. But even if this version passes muster, Taylor points out, the next redistricting battle is just around the corner—in 2021, after the next census. And North Carolina in 2020 will look dramatically different than it did in 2010.
In fact, it's already different. As UNC's Carolina Population Center observed, the new map relies on 2010 census data. Since then, the state's urban (and more progressive) counties have seen massive growth, while rural counties have shrunk. The new map doesn't capture that. But the next one will.
Today, says Jane Pinsky, director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, "Fifty percent of North Carolina residents live in fifteen counties. Fifty percent of the congressional vote should be coming from those places."
That's not what's happening.
Of course, it's not like the Democrats did any better when they wielded power. In the closely divided nineties, Pinsky says, Democrats drew districts that granted Republicans about 30 percent of the seats. If anything, the Democrats back then were only held back by the limits of computer technology.
"It's nothing new," Pinsky says. "The problem is the process."
That's why she wants to take redistricting out of politicians' hands. Instead, her coalition's plan, modeled after one in Iowa, calls for giving that task to nonpartisan legislative staffers with a dictate that no political considerations be allowed. The legislature could accept or reject the staffers' map but not amend it. A bipartisan bill to do just that easily passed the state House in 2011—with votes from Representative Paul Stam and then-Speaker Thom Tillis—but died in the Senate. Similar legislation was introduced in 2013 but went nowhere.
Politicians may be reluctant to relinquish their power to choose their own voters, but in a fast-changing state, Taylor says, that may prove a strategic error. "The motive [for reform] is that it's an insurance plan over getting screwed over," he says. "You can't draw a plan in one year that you can be sure returns you a majority in the legislative body ten years later. The other guys will just screw you over."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pick Your Own Voters: A Legislative Adventure"