Choosing voters or choosing opponents?
Published August 11, 2022
By Tom Campbell
To paraphrase Alice, who used the term to describe her adventures in Wonderland, election politics in America is getting “curiouser and curiouser.” North Carolina has been in the forefront of innovation and implementation.
Modern day elections began evolving in 1973, when the North Carolina Congressional Club, headed by lawyers Tom Ellis and Carter Wrenn, brought sophisticated and then unheard-of techniques to political campaigns. Computers had become more commonplace but were infrequently used in the political world. The Congressional Club assembled hundreds of thousands of contributor names into a database, then employed mass direct mail marketing (again a relatively new concept) to raise millions of dollars in support of Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, Lauch Faircloth and other conservative candidates. Upwards of 70 percent of those funds came from out of state.
As Television became the main source for political advertising the Club employed the medium to create innovative and targeted attack ads against their candidates’ opponents. Who can forget the 1990 Helms campaign television ad against Charlotte Mayor and architect Harvey Gannt? The commercial started by showing a white man’s hands crumpling up a sheet of paper, while the announcer admonished, “you needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” Pollsters said the election outcome was a tossup until this ad aired. Helms won.
North Carolina Democrats, firmly in control of our state legislature, used gerrymandering to draw districts more favorable to their legislative and congressional candidates, effectively allowing those drawing the maps to choose their voters instead of the voters choosing those elected. First used in 1812 by Massachusetts Governor Eldridge Gerry (hence the name), Democrats didn’t invent the practice, but in our state they got progressively bolder in drawing district maps during the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
When Republicans gained control of our legislature in 2011, they perfected gerrymandering to an art form, using redistricting to carve districts favorable to their candidates with techniques like cracking, packing and stacking. Cracking means that voters of a certain type (party, race, sex, etc.) are spread among several districts to dilute or “crack” their voting power. Packing does just the opposite. Voters (again of a certain race or belief) are packed into a single or a few districts to minimize their voting power in other districts. The classic example is “majority minority” districts that accomplish packing. Stacking, or double bunking, moves two incumbents into the same district. They can be from the same or different parties, but the net effect is that one incumbent will not survive.
The courts, largely the North Carolina Supreme Court, have ruled some of these redistricting maps are so egregious as to violate our state constitution. But Republican leadership no longer wants to take the chance that state courts can overturn their gerrymandering, so they have brought a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes our highest court will proclaim that state courts can no longer overturn redistricting decisions, thus giving lawmakers undisputed control. They base their argument on our Constitution that gives sole authority to draw districts to the General Assembly. Those who wrote that codicil in the Constitution never envisioned some of the shenanigans we’ve experienced. Republican leadership is encouraged about a favorable court decision because the U.S. high court is stacked with a Republican majority. No matter how outrageous the district is drawn and regardless of how it might disadvantage anyone’s ability to vote nobody can stop it. Oy Vey!
This year we are witnessing another twist, where one political party actually raises money and runs advertising for a candidate of the opposite party in the primary election. The theory is that the party chooses to promote the opposition primary candidate they believe will be easiest to defeat in the general election. So instead of choosing their voters, as gerrymandering accomplishes, they are attempting to choose their general election opponents. This practice was first reported in the 2012 re-election campaign of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. Her campaign ran ads for a Republican primary candidate, believing that candidate easier for her to beat in the November election. This year North Carolina Democrats have embraced and expanded the practice. Some are predicting it could backfire on them, using their funds to give name recognition to the opposition candidate. Time will tell how well it works.
We won’t even go into the huge role that independent expenditure groups and their money have in elections. Just know that money is the mother’s milk of elections.
Where are we? Elections are primarily all attack all the time, choosing voters instead of voters choosing candidates, and now even choosing their opponents. I don’t think I’m alone in saying these exercises aren’t good for the democratic process and won’t make our country better.