Battling the twin evils of gerrymandering and money
By Martin Dyckman • Guest Columnist
Most of Europe’s aristocracy didn’t think the infant United States would last a decade, and there were Americans who doubted it also. Yet here we are, 240 years after bidding an unaffectionate farewell to George III and his progeny.
Those years have fulfilled the prophecy of a foreign observer, the Baron Hyde de Neuville, who wrote after the First Congress had adjourned in 1791:
“These rebel colonists are on their way to become one of the most powerful of nations. We shall one day see them the astonishment of Europe, and if they do not actually dictate laws to the two worlds, at least, they will be their example.”
Unfortunately, the best of revolutions can be compromised or betrayed. That has happened to ours in two dire respects — campaign finance and gerrymandering.
The money — which amounts to bribery on an immense scale that the founders could not have imagined — has reduced Congress and the state legislatures to servants of wealth and corporate power.
And when voters go to the polls, the outcome has most often been fixed by whichever party abused the opportunity to draw the district lines.
North Carolina, first under the Democrats and now the Republicans, has long been a case study in extreme gerrymandering. House Bill 2, still controversial and still wrong despite the General Assembly’s recent partial fix, is an example of gerrymandering’s distorting effects.
According to Common Cause of North Carolina, 80 percent of the legislators who voted for it in that one-day steamroller session March 23 either had no opponents in the 2012 general election or won by more than 10 percent.
Experience had taught most HB 2 supporters that they had nothing to fear from the voters except, perhaps, those on the far right or far left of their own parties.
Most of them are effectively unopposed this year as well.
According to the website Ballotpedia, North Carolina’s state Senate races are “the least competitive in the country.” Eighteen of the 50 districts are unchallenged; only seven are really in play. Candidates, nearly all of them incumbents, ran without opposition in 58 of the 120 House districts. Only 15 other districts on the November ballot are rated competitive — less than two out of 10 of the total.
However, there are competitive races affecting Haywood, Jackson, Swain and Macon counties. The voters have three chances to vote against gerrymandering.
Rep. Joe Sam Queen, the Democratic incumbent in House District 19, has repeatedly co-sponsored legislation to create a nonpartisan districting process modeled on Iowa’s highly successful system. Although majorities of House members have either sponsored or actually voted for it on several occasions, Republican bosses in the Senate refused to allow even a committee hearing.
Rhonda Cole Schandevel, the Democratic nominee in House District 118, favors that legislation. Michele Presnell, the Republican incumbent, has never supported it and insists there is “no such thing” as nonpartisan redistricting.
Jane Hipps, the Democratic nominee opposing Republican incumbent Jim Davis, R-Franklin, in Senate District 50, likewise supports the redistricting reform.
Gerrymandering and campaign finance, the terrible twin evils of modern American politics, account for nearly all of what angers many of our people so much that they support a foul-mouthed, bigoted and conspicuously unqualified character for president.
But you won’t hear Donald Trump address either of those issues. They’re too complex for him. Moreover, he has boasted of having given money to control other politicians, and he owes it to one of the Supreme Court’s several campaign finance blunders that he could self-fund his primaries campaign.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices who would regard the Citizens United case as wrongly decided. It’s likely that her appointees would also tip the court in favor of overturning political gerrymandering and jerking the chain of the North Carolina legislator who admitted he had drawn a congressional map to the gross advantage of his own party. He did it, he said, because he could.
That farsighted quote from the Baron de Neuville appears at the end of author Fergus M. Bordewich’s impressive new book, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented The Government.
After making his prediction, the Baron added this:
“Only let the Americans be wise.”