Is Gerrymandering about to end?

Published September 6, 2019

By Tom Campbell

You have to hand it to our legislative leaders – they are good at counting. Following the 2010 census, the newly elected Republican leadership employed sophisticated techniques to draw congressional and legislative districts clearly designed to elect Republicans.

Those districts were challenged in court and lawmakers were forced to re-draw many of them in 2017, but they were still gerrymandered. Who can forget House Chair David Lewis saying they purposefully drew congressional maps so as to elect 10 Republicans to Congress, but only because he couldn’t figure out maps that would elect 11. In the 2018 elections Republicans won 65 of the 120 seats in the North Carolina House, even though they received less than 50 percent of the statewide vote. They also captured 29 of 50 Senate seats, again with fewer than 50 percent of the popular vote. 

A three-judge panel unanimously ruled last week that legislative districts had to be redrawn by September 18, sayingit was their “inescapable conclusion” that the maps “do not permit voters to freely choose their representative, but rather representatives are choosing voters based upon sophisticated partisan sorting.”

Once again legislative leaders took a count. It was 3-0, from the two Democrats and one Republican judge. They were even prescient enough to count likely votes on the North Carolina Supreme Court that now consists of 6 Democrats and 1 Republican. Rather than face certain defeat, lawmakers decided not to appeal.  

This is where we insert the obligatory “Democrats did it too” defense for gerrymandering. Incidentally, the courts also forced Democrats to redraw districts when they ran the state, but Republicans turned gerrymandering into an art form. 

We are going to see pretty quickly whether legislative leaders work in good faith to follow the ruling of the three judges, who made it clear there will be new maps before any further elections. In addition to following our Constitution, the judges allowed legislators to protect incumbents from being “double bunked,” having to run against each other, adding that no other political considerations can be used. And any outside experts must be approved in advance by the judges. 

If legislators don’t act quickly and abide by the mandates of this court, two things could happen, neither of which is desirable to leadership. First, the judges could say time has run out, the maps are still politically gerrymandered and they could delay the primary elections next year. This isn’t an attractive option to lawmakers, who changed the primary date to March 10thso that our state would be a player in selecting presidential nominees. But to vote in March, candidates need time to file, beginning in early December.  

The second option is even less appealing. The judges could say they don’t see good faith displayed and decide to draw the maps themselves. It has happened before, following the 2000 census, when Democrats did much the same as what we’ve been seeing, and Judge Knox Jenkins grew weary of the gameplaying and drew the maps himself. 

This would be the ideal time for the legislature pass authorizing legislation for an independent redistricting commission to draw districts following next year’s census. Let’s hope we can put an end to all the expensive, time-wasting and divisive motions and that our elections can truly be fair and competitive.