Fair, schmair — nonpartisan redistricting to forever languish?
Eminent figures have called for common sense, nonpartisan redistricting since even before Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry unwittingly lent his name to the unseemly practice of gerrymandering.
Those calls have yet to be answered, but yet another group of eminent figures — a former president of the University of North Carolina system, a former N.C. Supreme Court Justice, the current head of Western Carolina University’s political science and public affairs department, the executive director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, a former state legislator and the chair of the N.C. Libertarian Party — again called for nonpartisan redistricting at the Fair Vote Town Hall June 14 on the campus of the Haywood County Community College.
A uniquely American phenomenon, ours is the only democracy in the world that engages in “crack and pack” partisan redistricting. “Crack” refers to breaking apart homogenous districts and groups — races, or political parties — and splitting them into two or more jurisdictions, thus ensuring minority status in a given district.
“Pack,” conversely, refers to combining together homogenous districts and groups, thus ensuring majority status in a given district.
A panel of speakers at the town hall all brought their unique — and uniquely qualified — viewpoints to the public.
“It’s not working so well,” said Tom Ross, president of the Volcker Alliance, a New York City-based nonprofit that focuses on improving the effectiveness of government.
Ross served as president of the 17-campus N.C. university system from 2011 to 2016; he’s also a former Superior Court judge.
Safe districts push candidates to the extreme wings of their party, Ross explained, because their only Primary Election voters really matter.
If all votes for North Carolina Congressional elections were combined, Republicans would hold a 53 to 47 percent majority; along those lines, N.C.’s Congressional delegation should be 7 to 6 in favor of Republicans. It’s currently 10 to 3, but with a nonpartisan redistricting map, it would be 6 to 4 with three “toss up” districts.
Chris Cooper, head of the political science and public affairs department at WCU, thinks that instead, our country hasn’t seen such political polarization since the Civil War.
Before the most recent redistricting, the 11th Congressional District encompassing much of WNC used to be “the most competitive district in the state,” according to Cooper, until a chunk of Asheville was drawn out of it.
In 2016, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, won his third term in the 11th district by 30 points.
Hendersonville native Robert Orr spent 10 years on the North Carolina Supreme Court, and said that it doesn’t take much cracking or much packing to really skew things.
“You don’t have to draw some crazy district,” he told the audience. “You only have to put your finger on the scale enough to win.”
Former legislator Joe Sam Queen, who has served in both the N.C. House and Senate representing Haywood County and points beyond, blames the rise of “big data” for the ruthless efficacy of gerrymandering.
Jane Pinsky, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, a group that since 2005 has represented other groups spanning the political spectrum in advocating for nonpartisan redistricting, called the practice “a threat to our democracy.”
In 37 years, there have been 40 lawsuits related to redistricting in North Carolina; one of the more recent, coming from the U.S. Supreme Court, struck down some congressional N.C. districts because they were racially gerrymandered.
Bronx native and Air Force veteran Brian Irving currently chairs the Libertarian Party of North Carolina and has run for everything from Congress to Cumberland County Commission. He wasn’t shy about where he places the blame for such districts, and for the fate of third parties in the state.
Democrats and Republicans are either “incapable of or unwilling to” manage redistricting, Irving said, adding that the Green Party endorses that statement; both the Libertarians and the Greens, said Irving, support nonpartisan redistricting.
Also supportive are a host of nonpartisan political organizations like the League of Women Voters, the Asheville-Buncombe chapter of which was a co-sponsor of the event.
“It was a combination of concerned citizens from a number of different groups,” said Aiden Carson of how the event came about. Carson is vice president of the chapter, which like most LWV chapters holds forums, registers voters, presents educational events to the public and issues questionnaires to potential candidates. She says her chapter has about 100 members.
“I hope a lot of people come and learn more about the issue,” said Carson.
Aiding in that effort is Asheville FM, an all-volunteer radio station that broadcasts more than 60 different programs featuring music, news and talk across the air on 103.3 and across the internet at www.ashevillefm.org.
“We are really a community radio station,” said Asheville FM on-air personality DJ Smittymon. “We are trying, as part of that, to engage the community by broadcasting this over again so we can help promote this event.”
Smittymon said that the station would either rebroadcast or otherwise make available the audio on its website.
Thus a legislator, two educators, a jurist, an activist, a political party chair, a nonpartisan civic organization and a nonprofit radio station all helped spread the news about how gerrymandering hinders effective governance.
But is anybody listening? About 100 people attended the Fair Vote forum at HCC.
Redistricting normally occurs every 10 years, right after the decennial U.S. Census data is published. However, in 2016 U.S. District Court Judges struck down almost 30 N.C. House and Senate districts due to racial gerrymandering, which led to the recent Supreme Court ruling.
Gov. Roy Cooper called for a special session of the legislature to redraw maps June 7, but that was cancelled by House and Senate Republicans about 24 hours later.
Lest one think gerrymandering is solely a Republican tactic, the nation’s most infamous Congressional District — N.C.’s old 12th — was drawn by Democrats in the early 1990s.
Although it’s much more compact nowadays, the 12th was notoriously called “political pornography” in a Wall Street Journal editorial because of its utterly nonsensical shape — a thin ribbon along I-85 extending north from Charlotte and grabbing parts of the Winston-Salem, High Point, and Greensboro areas before terminating in Durham.
It was also called unconstitutional May 22 by the Supreme Court.
New maps will come, that much is certain, but when — and what they look like — are less so. Safe to say, however, that given the contentious history of the issue in the only country in the world that lets its politicians pick their voters rather than vice versa, calls for common sense nonpartisan redistricting by yet another panel of eminent figures may once again go unheard.