The End of Gerrymandering?

And why arguing for non-partisan commissions is not enough

The current Congressional map of North Carolina favors Republicans (10–3).

North Carolina, along with other states, has been a primary area of focus on the issue of gerrymandering. Considered by many to be the most gerrymandered state in the country, Republicans enjoy overwhelming control of the Congressional and state legislative seats, despite roughly a fifty-fifty split in the vote between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans enjoy such a large share in the General Assembly that Governor Cooper, a Democrat, is unable to veto anything the legislature passes without an inevitable override by the GA. The arbitrary and artificial seizure of this power by the GOP has galvanized Democrats, who now call for reform to the redistricting process. Most suggestions ask that the power of redistricting be shifted from the legislature to a non-partisan commission of citizens (NPC).

An NPC would try to make “fair” maps. Generally composed of a balance of Republicans and Democrats, as well as persons unaffiliated with a political party, the idea is that such a commission would make district maps that are acceptable to both parties. By being outside of the legislature, they would also not be skewed toward self-preservation or any similar political pressures either. For many Democrats envisioning this kind of reform, they may believe that enacting the creation of an NPC is where the problem ends, but this would be wrong.

Suppose North Carolina does get an NPC. Even then, there are three basic ways that the redistricting could occur. Using the Congressional races as an example, there are two extremes and one middle position the NPC could take. It could make a highly competitive map, where all thirteen districts are competitive. In this, Democrats or Republicans could potentially win all the seats, but they could just as easily lose the seats during the next cycle. The NPC could also make a non-competitive map, with six safe seats for Democrats, six for Republicans, and only one competitive seat. This would certainly be balanced and reflect the average distribution of the vote, but it would also be very stable and unlikely to respond to changes in voter preferences. Lastly, the NPC could make perhaps four safe seats for either party and make the last five competitive, as if to compromise between competitiveness and stability.

It is worth noting that making all thirteen districts competitive is not really possible, given the geographic constraints of the state, but the point is made: there is a spectrum of options in which the districts can be redrawn. The question, then, is: which of these is the most “fair”?

The issue with redistricting is that, even when done by an NPC, it is just as arbitrary as when done by a partisan legislature. As such, if done sufficiently poorly, it could also be the target of a lawsuit, as is the case with the current maps. It is incumbent on Democrats, then, to figure this out now, especially since this thought does not seem to occur to the vast majority of them, even though the vast majority of them are very much outraged over the Republican gerrymandering.

Based on the meetings I have had with my fellow party members over the past two years, I would dare to say that it is has had a monopoly on their concerns, challenged only by the Presidency of Donald Trump. What is often missing amid all this angst and ire, however, is a substantive, nuanced understanding of the issue, the kind that allows us to put our best foot forward when the pendulum at last swings our way. By simply advocating NPCs and failing to create a plan for NPCs, such as what kind of appearance a “balanced and fair” map should take for our Congressional seats (as well as the 170 seats in the General Assembly), we may come to find that the issue will not go away as easily as we thought and that voters might be unhappy with the result, to our renewed detriment.

Ultimately, my recommendation to Democrats in North Carolina and in other states that are affected by gerrymandering is that we not simply talk about opposing gerrymandering and resisting the Republicans. We need to think more critically and creatively about what we ourselves will do. We need to think in the long-term and about what the impact on our political institutions will be. Currently, we just take for granted that our policies are always right and always go well.

They often do not. Lest we forget, Democrats also gerrymandered the state of North Carolina after the 2000 Census. When I asked a Democratic legislator who was in office at that time why we did not gerrymander as comprehensively as the Republicans have for this decade, I was told that we merely lacked the computing power to develop those perfect maps for us. It was not for lack of intent; it was for lack of means. That was a deeply discouraging thing to hear, yet it was admittedly quite honest.

Of course, I think the issue goes beyond NPCs. In this previous article, I write that getting fair districts is but a milestone in a greater trek to make legislatures more fair and representative of the ideological diversity of a polity. That said, in order to reach that end, we have get this milestone right. To fail could set us back and put us in a situation of gerrymandering yet again or something similarly terrible.

So, to my fellow Democrats, I urge you think more carefully about this issue and exactly how we want NPCs to be executed. At the end of the day, we cannot get answers to questions that we never ask.

I discuss politics, economics, art, video games, and other interests.

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