The battle continues to loom over North Carolina’s redistricting process. In the most recent chapter of the saga, a federal three-judge panel struck down NC’s congressional maps as a product of political gerrymandering. After being thrown out though, there isn’t much direction on how to proceed, leaving things in limbo, ultimately waiting on a decision from SCOTUS.
This isn’t the first, second, or even third time NC has fought this battle over the previous twenty-five years. In fact, Governor Roy Cooper was defending the Democrat’s maps at the turn of the millennium. Maps that, when compared to the currently contested ones, are far more egregious in their drawing. Yet it was those same gerrymandered maps that led to a Republican super majority just a decade later.
It’s not just North Carolina’s problem, it is a nationwide issue. In just the last few months, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have fought similar battles, with their cases heading to SCOTUS as well. Look at any state’s congressional or legislative districts, and you’ll see a very similar theme of party-controlled borders and oddly shaped outlines. Don’t believe me? Check out the interactive map below. We call the game “Find the Gerrymander.”
The real problem here is not what it seems however. While it is easy to blame the problem on Republicans (or Democrats, depending on the state), there’s a much larger discussion that is being missed. Political tides change, demographics change, and people move, tilting a state’s geographic make-up. How do you then ever really draw a “fair” map?
Both Parties Are To Blame
Much of the conversation surrounding the gerrymandered districts has evolved in a new political wave of Republican control of state legislatures. Prior to the late 2000’s, very few states were held by Republican majorities, especially in both houses. In fact, the chart below shows how Democrats almost exclusively controlled state legislatures for decades. In North Carolina, it was 150 years between reconstruction and a Republican majority. During this time, maps were drawn in favor of their party control, often-times egregious in their borders. [If you want another fun game to play, check out our “Who Drew The Maps?” quiz regarding NC’s recently contested maps.]
These points are not to play the blame game. In fact, the argument “Democrats did it so Republicans should now” doesn’t hold any water with me. Petty partisanship doesn’t accomplish much. What these points do accomplish though is context. For more than 200 years, maps have been drawn, with some element of bias, with no direct instruction on what is right, and what is wrong. With maps being “thrown out” more frequently these days, some instruction must be given SCOTUS. Otherwise, the opinion of “fair” maps is entirely subjective.
Politics Aren’t That Simple
With that out of the way, it’s time to look deeper into what is “fair.” The three main elements that should be taken into account are political tides, demographics, and geography. They are so simplified and discounted in the redistricting conversation yet they deserve a much more thorough analysis. Everyone is clamoring about race and party, which are valid concerns not only socially but also legally. However, no one is looking at the complexity of the aforementioned factors.
First, let’s look at political tides. When drawing maps, predictive indicators are commonly used to identify how a particular geographic area might vote in the future. This is based on prior elections involving that set of precincts. That may make skeptics say that these districts are therefore predetermined to be “Republican” or “Democratic” districts. The problem with this is, political tides are constantly shifting.
The most common shifts are candidate or issue-based shifts. You need look no further than the fall of Bob Etheridge after punching (allegedly, right?) a student who was attempting to video him. That seat, which was historically Democratic, shifted to a Tea Party Republican Renee Ellmers on the same map. In fact, that seat was held by a Democrat since 1901, except for one two-year stint, 1995-97. In the three previous elections, before Ellmers, Etheridge won with 2-1 margins.
More recently, under the “gerrymandered” Republican districts, many Republicans lost their “safe” seats due to policy decisions. Controversial legislation such as HB2 and the I-77 Toll Roads played a role in chipping away from the super-majority. The point being, regardless of who draws the maps, political tides shift, and can do so quickly. As mentioned earlier, that’s how the Republicans took control of the North Carolina Legislature, on Democrat-drawn maps. A Republican wind blew across the country shifting several state legislatures.
Saying that a district is safe, or gerrymandered if you will, simply due to historical trends, is ignoring the will of the people. Incumbency is a far stronger factor in political elections than is district composition. Those who say people will just vote one way forever give no credit to the people, defining individuals as puppets to their parties.
Does a Party Define You?
Demographics is the next factor to consider. Race is the most commonly cited element, due to the fact that historically, minorities were disenfranchised in the American political process. There are two methods of racial gerrymandering, with minority-minority districts, or majority-minority districts, neither of which explain the proper methodology. For minority-minority districts, minorities can be placed in insignificant numbers into districts leaving their voice diluted. As a counter to this, majority-minority districts create a statistically significant portion of minorities who are then able to elect who they wish. The issue with the latter is that it can be viewed as “packing” minorities into a district in order to give them one representative, whereas they might actually have more when placed into separate districts.
Both options have merit and consequences, so which is the proper answer? The truth is, no one knows. Each choice has been viewed as racial gerrymandering with no guidance as to what the magic number is. Is 30% too low but 60% too high? 40% or 51%? The solution so far has been to kick the can down the road.
What is also left out of the discussion is, does a party define an individual? Is someone born African-American defined as a Democratic voter for the rest of their life? In North Carolina’s court battles, the courts have deemed this to be the case. By placing Democrats into districts, even without the use of race at all in their configuration, it is believed to be racial gerrymandering. That begs the question, just to reiterate, does your demographic and a political party define who you are and who you vote for? To return to the point of the last section, are individuals not capable of making their own decisions, or are they just an R or D?
Birds of a Feather
Flock together. Or move together more specifically. Geography is the final sticky element of gerrymandering. As maps are drawn in relation to geographic factors, the ideology and reasoning behind how people move is not accounted for in the fairness debate. If you create a map that keeps people together inside city limits or other urban boundaries, you are essentially packing a district. Though, you are packing it because people chose to live there, near people similar to them. To better illustrate this point, look at this image by The Washington Post:
What you see here is a map based on precincts by number of votes. People concentrate into certain areas, generally based on their philosophy, at least as a byproduct. So, if a city votes 80% for a Democratic candidate, is that gerrymandering? The same if a rural county votes 80% Republican? Or is that just birds of a feather voting together?
What Do We Do Now?
Ultimately, this is a question no one has the answer to. My goal here was to start a more honest discussion of how complicated the entire subject is. It’s easy to decry partisanship or racism, which are indeed problematic. What isn’t easy is figuring out what a “fair” district would be. Until then, we need to at least have a true debate, not just talking points aimed to fundraise.