Legislators in Raleigh have kicked off another round in the never-ending battle over redistricting. There’s talk about making districts compact and contiguous and keeping “communities of interest” together.
But their bigger concern is how those election districts will translate to seats and which party controls Congress and the General Assembly over the next decade.
North Carolina has long been a legal battleground over gerrymandering — or drawing districts that give a political party unfair advantage. Both major parties have done it, but the practice accelerated after 2010, when Republicans gained control of the General Assembly and employed new techniques to maximize their advantage.
From 2012-2020, Republicans won 47 of 65 congressional contests (72%), while Democrats won only 18 (28%). North Carolina’s an evenly divided state. In our six highest-profile 2020 elections — president, U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, state Supreme Court chief justice and attorney general — the two-party statewide vote averaged 50.1% for Republicans and 49.9% for Democrats.
Democrats worry Republicans will use their legislative muscle to impose another 10 years of unfair elections. “Nonpartisan redistricting” is seen as making the process fairer — but with one major caveat: Democrats could expect to win only five, maybe six, of our 14 congressional seats — even if they get more votes.
The analysts say it’s because Democrats tend to be “clustered” in urban and metropolitan areas while Republicans are more spread-out. Democrats pile up bigger winning margins but win fewer total districts. So, it takes more Democratic votes to win fewer Democratic seats.
While this is an improvement from the past decade, it’s still less than 40% representation in a 50-50 voting state. Another way of looking at it: If you’re a Democrat, your vote buys 80 cents of representation compared to a Republican vote that buys $1.20.
The U.S. Supreme Court says it can’t do anything about “partisan gerrymandering.” But state courts can. In 2018, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court rejected its state’s congressional districts and brought in Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily to draw new ones. Persily also has drawn districts for North Carolina.
Pennsylvania’s another evenly divided state. Its congressional delegation had 13 Republicans and only five Democrats. The Pennsylvania ruling cited the state constitution’s “free and equal elections” clause to emphasize the need for “partisan fairness” in redistricting.
Persily followed that directive in assuring an outcome with “partisan balance.” In the next two elections, 2018 and 2020, Pennsylvania voters elected an evenly divided congressional delegation — nine Republicans and nine Democrats.
“Clustering” is particularly pronounced in Pennsylvania, where Democrats are heavily concentrated around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. “A partisan-blind map would favor Republicans by a notable amount,” The New York Times observed, but “the new map is arguably even better for (Democrats) than maps they proposed themselves.”
Many state constitutions, including ours, have parallel provisions to Pennsylvania’s. North Carolina courts cited our constitution’s “free elections,” “equal protection” and “free speech and freedom of assembly” clauses in 2019 rulings that overturned legislative and congressional districts on partisan gerrymandering grounds.
Republicans already enjoy significant structural advantages. The Electoral College usually favors their presidential candidates. A “small-state bias” skews the U.S. Senate in Republicans’ favor. The redistricting formula being contemplated would hand Republicans another advantage and help them retake Congress in 2022.
Recent statewide public hearings elicited a spirited response from citizens but little expectation for bipartisan agreement. With map drawing underway at the General Assembly, there’s a high likelihood of renewed legal challenges by Democrats and their allies.
Democrats should not be locked into minority status simply because their voters live closer together. Pennsylvania succeeded in giving those voters their full representation in Congress. Reformers in North Carolina should do no less.
Lee Mortimer of Durham served on a General Assembly Election Laws Review Commission and was co-chair of FairVote/NC.