Independent redistricting is the only answer
As we celebrate Independence Day, it seems an appropriate time to call for an independent commission to address North Carolina’s grossly gerrymandered voting districts.
In a much-anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decision last week, a 5-4 majority of justices decided they should not be the arbiter of extreme political redistricting, however damaging to democracy that practice may be. The court’s conservative majority, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing, determined that drawing maps to favor one party presents “political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
I get the philosophy behind the decision, that judges shouldn’t stray into elected lawmakers’ territory. But that thinking presupposes that elected lawmakers will have some semblance of respect for the democratic process upon which this country is built. Unfortunately, that is not the case among the current GOP leaders of North Carolina and the Democrats in Maryland who did a similar job to districts in that state.
In the current political climate where it is common practice to demonize political opponents rather than simply disagree with them, this state’s GOP leaders have been frank about what they were trying to do when drawing up congressional maps. Republican Rep. David Lewis, co-chair of the North Carolina elections committee responsible for the gerrymandering, said he believed “electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.” He also quipped the maps were drawn “to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
It’s pretty simple to understand how extreme gerrymandering violates our basic democratic principles. Lawmakers pack a large number of voters from the opposing party into a small number of districts, thereby ensuring that the votes of those citizens get diluted. There is no equal representation for voters in those gerrymandered districts, and we end up with a situation where lawmakers are choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their lawmakers. In its extreme version, it’s a reprehensible practice.
In the 2018 midterm elections, North Carolina Democrats got 48.3 percent of the vote in congressional races, and Republican candidates won 50.4 percent. But Democrats won only three of the 13 congressional seats. That, in a nutshell, proves we need to come up with a better system.
Many point to the historical practice of gerrymandering in defending what the GOP majority in North Carolina has done. But the current state GOP leadership has taken the practice to the extreme, going beyond simply making sure the majority party maintains an advantage.
Harvard University Political Science Professor Ryan Enos says the court’s decision, given what state legislators are doing, “seems to lock-in an essentially non-democratic feature of American politics. Elected representatives can rig the system to remain in power indefinitely and this cannot be challenged. Combine this with the other increasingly consequential non-democratic features of the American system ... and the long-term stability of the system seems worryingly compromised.”
The Supreme Court decision will hopefully pressure state leaders to follow the lead of states like Michigan, Colorado, Utah and Missouri. Lawmakers there have set up independent redistricting commissions led by citizens, thereby taking the map-drawing power out of the hands of elected — and partisan — leaders.
Our forefathers were fierce partisans, but the Constitution they crafted and ensuing amendments added to it were intended to ensure that basic democratic principles remain the cornerstone of our system.
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the minority in this case, summed up the dangers of the current system: “In giving such gerrymanders a pass from judicial review, the majority goes tragically wrong. Election day — next year, and two years later, and two years after that — is what links the people to their representatives, and gives the people their sovereign power. That day is the foundation of democratic governance. And partisan gerrymandering can make it meaningless. At its most extreme — as in North Carolina and Maryland — the practice amounts to ‘rigging elections.’”