Opinion: Time to unrig the electoral maps
By David Woronoff
As business executives, we know all too well that we’re only one bad decision away from landing on the wrong side of history. Look no further than Elbridge Gerry: He signed the Declaration of Independence, was a framer of the U.S. Constitution and helped draft the Bill of Rights. And, he was governor of Massachusetts, a congressman and vice president to James Madison.
Yet, we don’t remember him as a founding father, but rather the father of partisan redistricting. In 1812, while governor of Massachusetts, he approved a redistricting plan for the voting districts that favored his Democratic/Republican Party candidates over those of the rival Federalist Party.
The Boston Gazette published an editorial cartoon that depicted the unusual shape of the redrawn voting district as a salamander. Since Gerry was the mastermind behind the newly drawn districts, the Gazette graciously gave him naming rights — calling the mythical creature a Gerrymander. The name stuck.
Fast forward 200 years: With the use of powerful computer technology that harnesses troves of big data and sophisticated algorithms, we’re able to create partisan districts with such precision they would make Elbridge Gerry blush. Two centuries of history suggest that politicians of any stripe are incapable of keeping their thumbs off the scale when weighing electoral boundaries.
North Carolina is no different: Republicans were for redistricting reform before they were against it, and Democrats were against it before they were for it. Governor Roy Cooper voted against reform as a state legislator. Now that his party is out of power, he’s for it. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger co-sponsored five redistricting reform bills when his party was out of power. Now, he’s not sure reform is necessary.
So, why is our process broken? Powerful software that compiles demographic and socioeconomic profiles, voter registrations, campaign contributions and other public records can be fed into sophisticated algorithms to predict how people will vote. This information is then used to draw district maps with lines zigzagging across streets, neighborhoods and communities.
To make matters worse, these gerrymandered districts have coarsened our political environment. They’re the root cause of the political polarization we see every day. When we create safe voting districts that are drawn to ensure a certain political party will win, there is no incentive for politicians to compromise. If an elected official does compromise, a more partisan candidate from his own party will await him in a primary. In these highly polarized districts, the hyperpartisan candidate usually wins.
Our current system has no middle ground, which is where businesses generally thrive. As business executives, we have to be leaders in fixing broken systems. The best, most innovative ideas are born through cooperation and teamwork, neither of which is incentivized today.
In business, we know what happens when we don’t incentivize people to do the right thing. And, when we have a structure in place that all but ensures certain people can’t get fired from their jobs, it’s not good for business and it’s not good for North Carolina.
The good news is that we think there’s a better way for the state to conduct its redistricting process. It’s called the Fairness and Accountability in Redistricting, or the FAIR, Act. N.C. Rep. Chuck McGrady, who is co-chair of our board with former UNC System President Tom Ross, introduced the FAIR Act (House Bill 140) with state Reps. Robert Reives, Jon Hardister and Sarah Stevens. In total, we ended up with 68 sponsors, including 20 Republicans and 48 Democrats.
The FAIR Act seeks to bring transparency and clear, common-sense rules to the redistricting process and protect those rules by putting them in a constitutional amendment.
We propose that the legislative staff draw the districts and have the General Assembly vote on their work. Our bill spells out the process and guidelines to be followed in drawing the maps:
• Population of each district must be equal.
• County and geographic boundaries must be respected to the extent practicable.
• Districts must be compact and contiguous.
The following data cannot be used:
• voting history
• party affiliation
• residence of the incumbent or declared candidate
• demographic information — except to comply with state and federal law
• any other data that could be used with reasonable certainty to identify how a group of people votes
Then, we want to enshrine these guidelines into the state constitution. That makes it more difficult for future legislatures to change them. This route to reform is critically important to get both sides to the table. We need 60% of both chambers of the legislature to vote in favor.
If we are successful, we are confident that the voters of North Carolina will vote in favor of it. Redistricting reform is an issue that Republicans, Democrats and independents all support, polls show.
So why now? In a word: uncertainty. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear the Common Cause v. Rucho case on partisan gerrymandering as it pertains to congressional districts. A North Carolina Superior Court will hear the same case as it pertains to our state’s legislative districts. It’s likely that decision will be appealed directly to the N.C. Supreme Court.
We have no idea how these cases will be resolved. But, the N.C. Supreme Court might redraw the North Carolina legislative districts in advance of the 2020 elections. Whichever party wins the majority in 2020 will oversee redistricting in 2021.
In 2016, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the state’s congressional districts, with Democrats picking up four seats in those newly drawn districts.
We believe that this uncertainty creates an opportunity for elected officials to make meaningful changes. The FAIR Act is an insurance policy for them, and it has the benefit of being the right thing to do.
We have created a system that allows elected officials to choose their constituents. This is just wrong, and the process will get worse if we don’t fix it.
I hope you will join me in getting North Carolina back on the right side of history.
David Woronoff is president of Old North State Magazines LLC, owner of Business North Carolina. He is a director of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform.