As a political issue, gerrymandering is the equivalent of your Uncle Rick wearing a bathrobe in a roomful of Brooks Brothers suits.
Or at least that’s how Scott Sexton of the Winston-Salem Journal characterized it in a column published two weeks ago.
The article did an excellent job of explaining what gerrymandering is and contextualizing the practice here in North Carolina, but it is frustrating that the piece went to such great lengths to inform its audience that gerrymandering and redistricting reform are issues that must be labeled (in Sextons own words) as “unsexy.”
In its simplest form, gerrymandering is when legislative and congressional districts are redrawn to favor one political party over the other.
Under the U.S. Constitution, redistricting (which is simply the redrawing of these districts) occurs after each decade’s Census in order to adjust the districts and make them roughly equal in terms of population.
In North Carolina, that task is assigned to whichever party controls the state legislature. As one can imagine, the consequence of this stipulation is often decidedly problematic.
When the party in power finishes drawing the maps, gerrymandered districts that heavily favor them over the other party essentially become the norm.
This development is worrisome for two reasons: first and foremost, gerrymandering basically silences voters and candidates who are affiliated with whichever party is at a disadvantage in the district.
When districts are so skewed that they practically guarantee that one party will win over the other in a particular district, voters rightly feel like their vote for the minority party doesn’t mean anything.
It doesn’t matter how many people vote, since the majority party can be virtually certain that their candidate will win.
But the more insidious effect of gerrymandering is that it severely reduces competition in our elections.
Closely tied to the issue of silencing voters, when political parties have effectively no way to elect their candidate in a district where they are at a disadvantage, a two-party system quickly gives way to a one-party system where elections are anything but competitive.
Enter the North Carolina General Assembly. There is really no state in the U.S. where gerrymandering is more pervasive than North Carolina.
Over the years, both the Democrats and the Republicans have used gerrymandering to snatch up as many sears as they can in the state legislature, hindering competition and dealing a tremendous blow to the health of our democracy.
Reform is sometimes thought to be impossible, since the very people who must initiate it prefer the districts exactly as they are — with them in charge.
But fortunately all is not lost.
As with any issue in a democracy, if enough people are unsatisfied with a particular law or policy, they can mobilize, form coalitions and lobby for change.
That is exactly what happened in Raleigh at the North Carolina General Assembly two weeks ago.
Groups as diverse as the ACLU, AARP and the John Locke Foundation all came together that Wednesday to protest gerrymandering, and they called for a simple remedy: nonpartisan, independent redistricting commissions that would redraw the districts in a fair way that is not skewed towards one party.
While these commissions might seem like a pipedream, it is surprising to note that some 21 states already have them in place.
North Carolina legislators would be wise to do the same.
As Sen. Jeff Jackson noted in a statement addressing the topic, a nonpartisan commission is an absolute necessity if we want to make our elections fair, democratic, and logical. Under the current system, he asserted, less than 10 percent of incumbents stand any real chance of losing a general election, “despite the fact that we’re a roughly 50/50 state.”
To reform, we obviously must change that.
I had the privilege of speaking with Jackson over the summer, and I asked him why redistricting reform is so hard to achieve.
He first told me — as we have just noted — that the people in power are the ones who ultimately must change the system, but they are the ones who like the system just the way it is.
But more importantly, Jackson also informed me that people outside the legislature often don’t know how direct of an impact redistricting has on them as individual citizens.
More than just the big congressional races, redistricting determines who represents us in our state, in our cities and on our school boards.
So while it might be easy for us to label gerrymandering as “unsexy” given its somewhat wonky nature, nothing is likely to change if we frame the issue as a quixotic battle.
Gerrymandering is a sexy issue. In many ways, it’s the sexiest issue in a democracy, since it directly determines who represents us in the halls of power and how much control we have over who our representatives are.
Perhaps Uncle Rick should trade in his bathrobe for a Sunday suit. Our democracy would be all the better for it.