Every 10 years, following new census data, lines for legislative districts are redrawn. In the majority of states, including North Carolina, this process of mapping districts for the U.S. House of Representatives and for the state legislature is done by the state legislatures themselves. This process is inherently susceptible to undemocratic manipulation as the party in power will want to draw districts in a way that maximizes their own number of winnable seats and confines the other party to fewer seats. When these maps are successfully manipulated in a manner that unfairly benefits one party, it is called partisan gerrymandering.
In North Carolina, the Republican Party has openly carried out gerrymandering of congressional districts and General Assembly districts. In 2010, as part of a nationwide conservative backlash to the Obama presidency, Republicans took control of the state legislature. During post-census redistricting, the North Carolina GOP was able to draw severely gerrymandered maps with unprecedented precision thanks to new technology.
The Supreme Court found in 2017 that these same state legislature districts were unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered, and a state court in 2019 once again held that the redrawn maps were still gerrymandered in Cooper v. Harris of the North Carolina Constitution due to extreme gerrymandering. The judges found that because of this manipulation, “it is the carefully crafted maps, and not the will of the voters, that dictate the election outcomes.”
North Carolina Republicans’ brazen gerrymandering did pay off in electoral wins; they were able to maintain a veto-proof majority in the state legislature from 2013 to 2018. Gov. Cooper vetoed 28 bills in the first two years of his term. The Republican legislature overrode 23 of those vetoes, effectively removing the executive’s ability to act as a check on the legislative branch and reducing his veto power to little more than a symbol.
Over the past decade, the disproportionately Republican legislature has engaged in deceit in order to override the governor’s budget veto, refused to expand Medicaid, approved sweeping bills with little transparency or input, slashed corporate taxes, cut unemployment benefits and defunded public services. Perhaps most egregiously, Republican state legislators have actively engaged in voter suppression. One restrictive voting law was found by a federal court to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The gerrymandered nature of North Carolina’s districts is plainly undemocratic. In the 2018 race for the North Carolina Senate, Republicans won a minority of votes. Nevertheless, Republicans won 58% of the state Senate seats. In the North Carolina House of Representatives that year, Republicans again received a minority of votes, but a majority of seats. This violates a basic tenet of democracy – the votes of citizens did not amount to corresponding political power.
We encounter this disconnect between electoral input and political power again when we consider that North Carolina is a purple state. Statewide races are incredibly competitive here – often with margins of only a couple points. How does it make sense that one of the most purple states in the nation had a partisan supermajority in the legislature up until two years ago? (It doesn’t.)
Gerrymandering undermines democracy and creates a positive feedback loop of voter apathy. Combined with a party in power that actively engages in voter suppression, gerrymandering creates a democratic death spiral that calls the “fair and free” nature of our elections into grave question.
So how do we fix this? Alternatives to district maps drawn by partisan legislators who hail from already gerrymandered districts do exist. Other states have implemented numerous reforms, such as various types of independent commissions, required judicial approval of maps, bipartisan commissions with a public interest tiebreaker and legislative redistricting with increased public input.
A more comprehensive solution has already been passed by the U.S. House and is currently stalled in the Senate: the For the People Act. Amongst other electoral reforms, the For the People Act reigns in gerrymandering in a historic way. The bill includes required statistical tests that district maps must pass in order to be put in place, greater transparency in the redistricting process, measures to streamline litigation over maps and independent citizen commissions in each state to draw district lines.
Even if the For the People Act doesn’t pass the current Senate, it does the vital work of laying the groundwork for future redistricting reforms and provides a piece of legislation for supporters of democracy to rally around. Our representatives should actually represent us. These manipulated maps are not the voice of the people.