The “peaceable kingdom,” where lions lie down with lambs amid other unlikely combos, turns out to be not so far-fetched when it comes to one of North Carolina’s most vexing policy challenges. While there are holdouts who enjoy their status as predators – or who don’t want to risk becoming prey –many conservatives and liberals agree that the state’s redistricting procedure is a mess that needs fixing.
Which group represents the lions and which the lambs? Well, let’s say that’s in the eye of the beholder.
Anyway, the outlines of a consensus spanning ideologies and parties were on display in Apex on the evening of Dec. 11. The NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform sponsored a meeting to build support for a new approach to redistricting that would defuse what has become a toxic cycle of smash-mouth partisanship. A key proponent, Apex Republican Rep. Paul Stam, was on hand to talk up House Bill 606, of which he is a lead sponsor.
Nobody would mistake Stam, the House speaker pro tem, for anything less than a loyal Republican and staunch conservative. But he has been pushing for redistricting reform ever since Democrats ran the show in the General Assembly and drew congressional and legislative voting district boundaries to their liking. Since Stam clearly doesn’t want to be mistaken for a hypocrite, he’s making the same kind of arguments now that his party is in charge. That puts him in league with liberal-minded reformers appalled by how the line-drawing process has been abused.
A handy way to describe that abuse is to say that instead of letting voters choose their legislators, it lets legislators choose their voters. As several folks at the well-attended Apex gathering noted, that turns a basic principle of representative democracy on its head.
Redistricting is a chore undertaken by the General Assembly at the outset of each decade, after the national census. The goal is to adjust the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts to account for population changes. Districts represented by members of Congress, the state Senate and state House are supposed to be more or less the same size as others in the respective categories.
But that’s where the age-old, disreputable art of gerrymandering comes into play. Politicians can and do skew the lines to favor their party, powerful incumbents and themselves.
‘It’s our turn’
This state’s Republicans had long chafed at what they saw as rough treatment at the hands of Democrats who controlled the redistricting machinery for decades. So when they took control of both legislative houses in the 2010 elections, they set out to fix the Democrats’ wagon.
Specialists used computers to draw districts finely calibrated to maximize GOP chances. The basic technique was to group as many Democratic voters as possible into as few districts as possible. That gave Republican candidates elsewhere a big advantage.
The payoff came in 2012, when the state’s congressional delegation ended up split 9-4 in favor of the GOP, even though Democratic candidates took 51 percent of the overall vote. Legislative Republicans padded their majorities to levels where no gubernatorial veto could be sustained if party discipline held.
The packing of Democratic voters into certain districts also meant that many black residents, who tend to favor Democratic candidates, were given the same treatment. That has given rise to lawsuits claiming violations of the federal Voting Rights Act, which is supposed to protect the voting strength of racial minorities. Legal tussles involving redistricting and minority rights have been fought with regularity in North Carolina over recent decades – more so than in any other state, and another sign of how dysfunctional our redistricting exercise has become.
“Skip” Stam explained to his hometown crowd a fact of political life: Redistricting reform has the best chance when neither party can anticipate the outcome of the next census-year election. In other words, the temptation for a party that expects to win that election, and thus maintain its power by drawing favorable district lines, is too great.
In keeping with that rule, reformers in the state House advanced a bill in 2011 – nine years before the next redistricting – and won final approval by a bipartisan 88-27 vote. Besides Stam, who was majority leader at the time, those in favor included Speaker Thom Tillis. (All the no votes were cast by other Republicans.)
The bill went nowhere in the Senate. It was reintroduced this year as H.B. 606, gathering 61 sponsors (a majority in the 120-member House), but was not brought to a vote in the face of continuing Senate resistance. The Republican leadership there, under President Pro Tem Phil Berger, has been adamant in pressing to secure partisan advantage while it has the chance.
H.B. 606 would delegate the drawing of district lines to the legislature’s nonpartisan professional staff. Districts would have to be “reasonably compact” and “composed of convenient contiguous territory” – a marked contrast from the wildly spread-out and twisted shapes, cutting across county, municipal and precinct boundaries, that now are common and that confuse voters and officeholders alike. Staff-drawn district plans would be subject to up-or-down legislative votes.
The bill also includes this language, which gets to the heart of the matter: “No district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent legislator, or member of Congress, or other person or group, or for the purpose of augmenting or diluting the voting strength of a language or racial minority group. In establishing districts, no use shall be made of any of the addresses or geographic locations of incumbents.”
Redistricting reform is an essential tonic to restore the health of a political system that depends on the honest competition of candidates and ideas. It would combat voter apathy and make officeholders more accountable. And let’s be honest: From the standpoint of those who seek to protect the interests of disadvantaged, vulnerable people – a touchstone of the NC Council of Churches – reform is especially important if it would curb undue influence amassed by those who show too little regard for folks who struggle just to get by.
Barring a court order rejecting North Carolina’s current district maps, we won’t redistrict again until 2020. That’s a long enough interval to comport with Stam’s rule of thumb – neither party should be confident that it’ll be in the driver’s seat by then. So let legislators, when they come to Raleigh in the spring, welcome their own version of the peaceable kingdom and join across party lines to give us voting districts that are fair and functional for all.