If you live in North Carolina, you’ve probably heard of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering has become a regular topic of political conversation, but what exactly is it?
Steven Greene, a professor of political science at NC State, explains that gerrymandering is an illegal practice that skews congressional districts, typically by race or political party. This allows one party to have an advantage over the other.
Greene said gerrymandering can easily be seen in North Carolina because the electorate is roughly 50% Democrats and 50% Republicans. However, historically, our state’s congressional districts don’t reflect that proportion.
“Our districts were gerrymandered such that Republicans could consistently win 10 out of 13 statewide districts,” Greene said. “That’s a pretty extreme example and a classic case of gerrymandering. Whereas in a state without gerrymandering, you would expect roughly a seven to six balance.”
According to Greene, the congressional districts are redrawn every ten years following the United States census. On Oct. 13, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would be ending the census early at 11:59 p.m. Hawaii time on Oct. 15. Greene said this decision could have a major impact on our redistricting.
“There’s some real questions and concerns on whether the districts that are then drawn in this next cycle will be the most fair and accurate reflection of the underlying populations,” Greene said. “Let’s say a district represents roughly 750,000. Because of an improperly done census, you might have one district that is actually representing 650,000 and one district that is actually representing 750,000. Which is not fair to the people in those two districts and undermines the principle of ‘one person, one vote’.”
Tomas Lopez, the executive director of Democracy North Carolina, echoed this idea that gerrymandering makes the principle of “one person, one vote” false. Further, Lopez says it creates a system in which representatives don’t feel they have to represent the will of their constituents.
“You can end up with a situation where people who are in office, and they know that their lines are drawn in a way where they’re going to be returned to their seat anyway,” Lopez said. “That undermines the idea that you’re representing everybody in a given district.”
Lopez discussed how these techniques have historically been used in North Carolina to essentially disenfranchise groups of people throughout the state. According to Lopez, one of the more infamous examples was when congressional districts were redrawn to split North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University’s campus into two different congressional districts.
Lopez explained two major gerrymandering techniques. The first, cracking, was used to break apart N.C. A&T’s campus to diminish the power that they held representationally. The second, packing, puts people of similar ideologies into one district in order to diminish their representational power.
Greene explained the increase of technology and data has made gerrymandering a precise science. Lopez echoed this sentiment.
“Technology is allowing people who draw legislative maps to really exploit street-level differences in voting patterns and demographics,” Lopez said. “You have a situation where people can draw out a single city block because they know those people are less likely to vote for them to diminish their representational power.”
Greene believes that people in North Carolina are much more aware of the dangers of gerrymandering today than they have been in the past, and Lopez agrees due to the blatant nature of historical North Carolina gerrymandering.
“We’re in this pattern where a map gets drawn, people go to court, the court says you have to draw a new map, a new map gets drawn and we go back to court,” Lopez said. “We’ve been in this loop.”
Lopez said this practice is no secret and referenced a quote from former Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly’s redistricting committee Rep. David Lewis. The quote said, “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
Greene explained the difference between how parties propose solutions to gerrymandering. According to Greene, Democrats want to institute nonpartisan redistricting committees and referenced Virginia, where Democrats controlled the state legislature and governorship, but still chose to use a nonpartisan committee to redistrict as opposed to creating a Democratic gerrymander.
Lopez said he recognizes that gerrymandering may contribute to voter apathy in the sense that people may feel like their vote counts even less, but he wants people to know that the people you are currently voting in are going to be the people who are drawing the maps.
“Your participation can do something about gerrymandering,” Lopez said.