So the maps are out, and not surprisingly, so are the hecklers. The General Assembly recently released the legislative redistricting maps that will be in place for the next decade. These maps have been met with an understandable fury of protest by Democrats who will soon face Republican-drawn districts for the first time in modern NC history. Democrats accuse Republicans of using “divide and conquer” practices, and even include their well-worn scare tactic “resegregation” in their criticism, while similar cries of “politicians picking their constituents” can be heard in local papers.
The fuss, however, is as the saying goes: “all sizzle and no steak.” From outward appearances, redistricting has followed legal guidelines to a “T,” with careful consideration given to preserving majority-minority districts stipulated under the Voting Rights Act. Furthermore, Democrat rhetoric looks curious in the context of the infamous history of gerrymandering they have themselves authored.
Yes, Democrats will likely suffer losses under the new Republican maps. Some estimates show a strong likelihood of Republicans picking up three U.S. Congressional seats in 2012. It is expected the Republicans will hold their majorities in the General Assembly. From a historical perspective, however, much of these gains arise from correcting years of gerrymandering against Republicans. As Politico put it, “Republicans were presented with the opportunity to unravel a map gerrymandered to maximize Democratic gains.”
Historically, Democrats have shown themselves to be masterful abstract artists, drawing Rorschachian districts that span across the state in unintelligible hooks and arches. Their geographic abstractions gave birth to one of the most notorious and litigated districts in the country, the U.S. 12th Congressional District. Once described as “political pornography” in the Wall Street Journal, this district roughly spans the length and width of I-85 and has made several trips to the U.S. Supreme Court which once required the district to be redrawn.
According to the Journal article: “North Carolina’s 12th was a kind of in vitro offspring of an unromantic union: Father was the 1980s/1990s judicial and administrative decisions under the Voting Rights Act, and Mother was the partisan and personal politics that have traditionally been at redistricting’s core.”
The 12th district is one example of many. During the 2010 election, voters cast their ballots 54 to 45 percent in favor of Republicans in congressional elections, yet Democrats emerged with more Congressional seats—an outcome that is curious at best. As Greensboro News & Record Editorial writer Doug Clark pointed out, clever district-drawing was the cause. “How could Democrats win seven House seats to only six for Republicans? In a word, through gerrymandering.”
Elections in the General Assembly throughout the 2000’s have featured this same structural slant that has given Democrats a consistent advantage in Senate and House races. Most notably in 2006, House Republicans received over 50 percent of votes cast (with Democrats raking in 49 percent). Despite this, House Democrats wound up with 18 more seats than the GOP. Two years earlier, Republicans in the House received 52 percent of the votes cast (compared to 48 percent for Democrats), yet Democrats and Republicans each received 60 House seats. Likewise for the NC Senate races in 2004, Republicans received 2 percent less votes than Democrats, yet won 12 percent fewer seats. Such a disconnect between votes and legislative seats is an unfortunate consequence of craftily-drawn districts designed for partisan advantage.
It is in light of this partisan history of redistricting that Democratic criticism seems peculiar. Standard redistricting practices during the Democrat glory days are now causing considerable heartburn for the new minority, who is learning how uncomfortable the shoe feels on the other foot.
The politics surrounding redistricting are undeniable, yet they are still fair and legal. Our democratically-elected representatives are our stewards at the helm. With the consent of the voting electorate of 2010, they will decide how and where voters will be grouped. “Elections have consequences,” President Obama once said, which is as true (if not ironic) as ever. The flipside of that is: poor decisions create consequential elections. It is up to N.C. Republicans to draw fair lines that North Carolinians can accept and that reflect the diverse texture of our state.