This column deals with gerrymandering, a topic that has been described as everything you hated about high school civics. Admittedly, it is not as titillating as reading about porn stars and Donald Trump. Gerrymandering refers to the drawing of elective districts for offices from Congress down to county and municipal positions to benefit individual candidates, political parties or both. It has been with us since the earliest days of our nation and has been practiced by both Democrats and Republicans and the parties that preceded them.
I understand, but make no mistake. Gerrymandering affects all of us, rendering some of our votes meaningless and leading to the election of legislators and members of Congress of one party when members of the opposite party cast more votes. It cheapens the sacred “one person, one vote” premise Americans hold dear. Redistricting, which has meant gerrymandering in recent cycles, occurs after every U.S. census to distribute changing populations relatively equally for the coming decade. Lawsuits almost always follow.
The latest round of lawsuits began in 2011 and is still going strong. In the interest of full disclosure, I am the lead plaintiff in one of the several suits, which has been to the U.S. Supreme Court twice and to the North Carolina Supreme Court not once, not twice but three times – so far! The latest court ruling on gerrymandering in our state came last week from a three-judge federal panel and is by all accounts – and to use the vernacular – a really big deal not only for North Carolina but for our nation.
Since 2011, rulings in the phalanx of redistricting lawsuits in both state and federal courts have addressed gerrymandering based on race, and both state and federal courts have uniformly and repeatedly said racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Ruling last week, the federal judges said gerrymandering of congressional districts based on partisan politics is also unconstitutional. “No, no,” said the judges. The party in charge of redistricting – in North Carolina’s case last time around, the Republicans – may not gerrymander for gross partisan advantage.
Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County had justified the partisan gerrymandering to House colleagues by saying, “I propose we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it is possible to draw maps with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
The judges did not buy that position, however, marking the first time partisan gerrymandering has been struck down in North Carolina. In fact, while racial gerrymandering has long been deemed unconstitutional – though legislators still try it from time to time – courts have rarely dealt with partisan gerrymandering. That legal void has left room for the practice and allowed legislators like Rep. Lewis to feel comfortable announcing such plans out loud and in public.
As Bob Dylan famously sang, “The times they are a’ changing.”
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a partisan redistricting case from Wisconsin last fall and has agreed to take up another case from Maryland. Legal observers speculate that last week’s North Carolina ruling will also make its way to Washington. In other words, the highest court in the land is signaling that partisan gerrymandering is an issue of national significance. Advances in computer software now allow slicing and dicing of voting districts in ways not imaginable even a decade ago, much less in pre-computer days. These advances make gerrymandering, including partisan gerrymandering, a mere click away, and the high court is clearly concerned.
You and I can do little to combat gerrymandering of any sort except vote for candidates for the North Carolina General Assembly who support a bipartisan redistricting system. North Carolina, like most states, tasks the legislature with Congressional and legislative redistricting, a practice that allows those who benefit from the system to control the system. Think the fox guarding the henhouse.
North Carolina has held three election cycles – 2012, 2014 and 2016 – with Congressional and legislative districts that have been found unconstitutional, but legal appeals continue even as the next U.S. census and subsequent redistricting loom. This makes no sense to voters, repelling us instead of attracting us to our voting places. Gerrymandering in all its forms damages our democracy, and the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts are turning their attention to its highly partisan incarnation.