North Carolina has been a focal point of the nationwide debate about gerrymandering. Since the rebound of the Republican Party in 2010, due to increased turnout provided by the Tea Party, the state has been subject to brutal redistricting efforts by the GOP. These enabled them to maximize their gains in state and federal races, to the point that, even with a Democratic governorship, Republicans can override any veto that Roy Cooper may issue. Similar, if maybe less severe, stories have played out in other states that were flipped in 2010.
The issue has found its way to the Supreme Court. Last year, the Court ruled that racial gerrymandering is illegal, forcing a change to North Carolina’s maps. The situation for Congressional seats is not any better for Democrats, but many of the state legislative races may actually prove competitive, and if the Republicans lose a few seats in either house, that will take away their ability to override Cooper’s vetoes.
Currently, the Supreme Court is mulling over Gill v. Whitford, and the decision on that will affect the legality of partisan gerrymandering. With a possible blue wave in 2018, Republicans are looking to gerrymander judicial districts as well, in a last-minute swipe before they lose too much lawmaking power in the next election. With a Republican majority on the Supreme Court, one cannot have high hopes, and the spectre of the gerrymander seems like it will continue to loom.
In spite of that, Democrats are not going down without a fight. Whether it is through the courts or through heavy turnout to retake the General Assembly, Democrats in North Carolina have their eyes set on a clear endstate: non-partisan commissions. Such commissions would, in theory, attempt to draw all districts in a way that gives no advantages to either party. Having watched my fellow party members discuss this for over a year now, the collective opinion is clearly that “drawing fair districts” is where the problem finally ends. They are, unfortunately, wrong.
What might be fair to Democrats and Republicans is not necessarily fair to everyone. This is an awkward thing for me to say, being a Democrat, but it is something that I feel compelled to say nonetheless. On its best days, a non-partisan commission would further entrench voters into a two-party system, a system that is increasingly despised by the American public. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “We need a third party,” I would never need to raise money for a campaign again. Just last September, Gallup found that 61% of Americans believe we need a third party. To any elected official worth their salt, this should sound like a call to action.
As such, we must admit that a non-partisan commission would not offer any representation to members of the Green or Libertarian Parties or to any other minor political party. That is a problem. Given that we now live in an age where American politics is hideously polarized, why would anyone want to fasten more stakes for the tent of two-party rule? Beyond that, when Greens and Libertarians often earn five to ten percent of the vote, it seems cruelly unfair that not a single seat, out of one hundred and seventy in both houses, is occupied by either of them in this state.
Even with the fairness to third parties aside, there are some problems inherent to drawing borders. As Democrats continue to pack themselves into cities, congressional and state districts will increasingly have to partition local jurisdictions in arbitrary and unhelpful ways for the sake of achieving balance, and this is no small matter. Coherent, compact districts allow elected representatives to serve a distinct segment of the population, with distinct commercial, environmental, and social needs. As these districts splinter municipalities and counties and join citizens from contrasting regions, these sorts of needs are not as easily voiced or served.
The first step to solving what is a collective issue of gerrymandering, disenfranchising third parties, and breaking up communities is to do away with drawing districts altogether. The next step is to make the elections at-large. The final step is to make it so that the legislature reflects the distribution of the votes. What I am describing is a system that political scientists call proportional representation (PR).
Under PR, voters generally choose parties instead of candidates. The amount of voters that a party receives is counted, and the percentage of the total vote that they win is translated into a number of seats in the legislature. Take North Carolina as an example. If its House of Representatives used this system, the Libertarians — assuming they won 5% of the vote — would win 6 seats. In order to decide who the individuals are that would get these seats, the Libertarians would, before the elections, produce a party list. This would list the occupants of any won seats, with those at the top of the list receiving the most priority and those at the bottom receiving the least. The list might be determined by party leadership, or it might be based on voter input.
This is the system that most European countries use. A few borrow from it without using it completely. On the whole, it appears to provide stabler governance and lacks the continual sort of gridlock that affects American politics.
In addition to that, extremists are usually confined to very small, weak parties that have little ability to dictate the national agenda. As we have seen since 2010, extremists have been able to hijack the Republican Party and make their far-right agenda mainstream, ultimately resulting in the rise of Trump as President. While never impossible, this sort of outcome is harder to accomplish under the European systems.
One outcome that may be hard for Democrats to swallow is that fact that such a system would almost certainly weaken the Democratic Party, relatively speaking. Instead of having about 50% of the seats in any legislature, that number would probably drop to 30%. The same would go, however, for the Republican Party. In fact, they would probably stand to lose more, as their hostile social agenda would lose many of their libertarian voters to, well, the Libertarian Party.
Even if PR were to weaken the party numerically, it seems to me that such a system would make our Republic and the people it serves stronger. It would lessen the extent to which issues are framed between a liberal solution and a conservative solution. It would allow for more nuance to emerge in a profession that relies on understandings that go beyond soundbites and hashtags. It would make democracy much harder to game, and it would make legislative races less susceptible to monied interests, as is the case in districts that use the current winner-take-all method.
We should absolutely set non-partisan commissions as one of our near-term goals here in North Carolina and in states similarly afflicted by partisan gerrymandering. Yet, the important thing to do, as Democrats, is to remember that the issue goes on. Non-partisan commissions are a milestone, not the finish line, and if we truly believe that democracy should function well and represent everyone fairly, then we will continue the discussion until we have proportional representation.