A bipartisan panel of North Carolina Superior Court justices struck a blow FOR democracy — small “d” — this week with a strong ruling against partisan gerrymandering.
In a unanimous ruling, the three judges found that our current legislative districts are unconstitutional under North Carolina law. The ruling has drawn nationwide praise, especially in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that found there was nothing it could do about legislative districts manipulated for political advantage.
The three judges, meeting in Raleigh, possibly had more evidence to work with.
Common Cause, a plaintiff in the case was able to obtain the papers of the N.C. Republican Party’s redistricting consultant, who has since passed away. These demonstrated the precise, computer-assisted techniques, by which legislators crammed as many Democratic and minority voters into as few districts as possible, gifting many Republican Honorables with safe, potentially lifetime seats.
This went beyond anything old Elbridge Gerry — whose shenanigans with Massachusetts elections maps led to the coining of “gerrymander” — could ever have imagined.
When Republicans took over the General Assembly in 2010, after more than a century in the minority, they fixed the maps to assure themselves veto-proof majorities in both houses of the legislature. (To be fair, Democrats had done the same thing to them, for decades.)
Even in 2018, when Tar Heel voters cast more ballots for Democrats than Republicans statewide, the GOP still wound up with a 65-55 majority in the state House and a 29-21 majority in the Senate.
Facing a chilly reception in the state Supreme Court, the Republicans running the legislature are forgoing an appeal or a shot at a more favorable ruling on appeal. They’ll be redrawing the maps one more time, although they only have about two weeks to do it — not much time for sober deliberation.
This is the key problem. Politicians are drawing the very same districts they’ll be running in. It probably strains human nature to expect them to do the selfless thing. More likely, the results will be akin to hiring a fox to design the new henhouse.
The only long-term solution to this is to take redistricting out of the hands of partisan legislators and putting it into the hands of an independent, non-partisan body — one that at least strives for fair representation.
The state’s Libertarian Party, safely insulated from any chance at a majority, has endorsed the notion of a bipartisan commission that would be charged with mapping electoral districts for the legislature and for North Carolina’s representation in Congress. That’s a sensible idea. A Senate bill basically proposing the same thing is languishing in a committee bin somewhere and going nowhere fast.
Duke University tried an intriguing experiment in redistricting not long ago, bringing in a committee of retired judges, both Republican and Democrat, to draft legislative maps. The results were pretty impressive, and certainly better than what we have now. Perhaps a panel of retired jurists is the way to go.
Little change is likely in Raleigh, though, unless the 2020 elections produce some kind of stalemate — say a Republican majority in one house, with Democrats controlling the other — which would force the two major parties to work together and compromise. It would be nice if they’d just go ahead and behave like adults.