Take a close look at this shape. What do you see? A man-made lake behind a hydroelectric dam? No. Perhaps a dribble of ketchup down the front of your clean white shirt? A nasty stain that will be hard to get out.
Yes, it is a stain – a stain on our democracy. This is the tortured 12th Congressional District in my home state of North Carolina, stretching more than 100 miles from the city of Greensboro southwest through Charlotte to the South Carolina border. It was created in a redistricting maneuver by the Republican members of the state’s General Assembly in 2012, and two years later won a dubious distinction when it was named one of America’s most gerrymandered districts by the Washington Post.
In fact, three of the Post’s 10 most gerrymandered districts are in North Carolina, and this political strategy has paid off for the GOP. The goal was simple: devise Congressional district boundaries to pack as many African-American voters as possible into a few districts, leaving white majorities in the other districts. Presto! Democrats won only four of the state’s 13 U.S. Representative seats.
Here’s how the state’s districts lay out to provide the maximum benefit for Republican candidates:
Republican leaders in the state don’t deny that the Congressional districts in the state were drawn for political advantage. In fact, their chief argument is that they are only doing what the Democrats did when they controlled the state legislature. But this month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court ruled that race, not politics, was the prevailing reason for the drawing of district lines. The judges ruled that two districts, the 12th and the 1st districts, are invalid and ordered the state to redraw the lines before the next election takes place.
According to judge Max Cogburn, “Elections should be decided through a contest of issues, not skillful mapmaking.” In his ruling, Cogburn wrote that “Today, modern computer mapping allows for gerrymandering on steroids, as political mapmakers can easily identify individual registrations on a house-by-house basis, mapping their way to victory.”
A lawyer for the state’s NAACP, Adam Stein, was more blunt, saying “Apartheid is not the way for our representatives to be elected.”
The result of the court’s ruling is political chaos. Ahead of the March 15 primary election, absentee ballots have already been printed and mailed out. Some ballots for the troubled districts are already being returned. Republicans filed an appeal to try to get the U.S. Supreme Court to block the court ruling and allow the election to proceed. The recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia pushed the 5-4 conservative court into a 4-4 balance that would make overturning the District Court’s ruling more difficult. Meantime, the General Assembly has quickly redrawn lines and made plans to bring its members back into emergency session to approve a new set of district boundaries. Predictably, some black members of the legislature say the new lines are still racially motivated and not an improvement. Additionally, the state House voted to abandon the Congressional votes in the March primary and schedule a second primary in June, at taxpayer expense, for the Congressional races.
The people who make their livelihoods in the bloodsport of politics take all of this in stride. Drawing funny lines for election success is part of the game – just one tactic in the tug-of-war that is part of the history of our democracy. Political dirty tricks and scheming weren’t invented in modern times.
But for the majority of people in my generation, disillusioned and disconnected from the arcane machinations of the political machine, the gerrymandered Congressional districts of North Carolina are just the latest example of the train wreck caused by our two-party system. Trust in government continues to spiral downward. There is a reason that the extreme candidates who cast themselves as outsiders – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – are doing so well this election year. Very simply, we’ve had more than enough of this nonsense. Our society is too important to be controlled by people who attempt to run government as their own personal playground. It’s past time to take control away from the professional political class; we must search for authentic voices who claim to be unbound from those who want to turn government to their favor. We want to elect those who are not beholden to anyone other than the voters.
Most of the spotlight in this election year will be on the presidential race. It is already entertaining to watch, and the stakes for our country’s future direction are certainly as high as ever. But this year, I will be paying equal attention to the race in North Carolina, where my votes carry much more weight. If we are going to finally change things for the better in this country, the place to start is at home. Here’s the bottom line: I want to find out which of my state senators and representatives voted to enact those hideous Congressional districts and then vote for their opponents. There’s where I can start. That will be my chance to erase a nasty stain on our democracy.
America’s most gerrymandered congressional districts by Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post
Federal court strikes down NC congressional district maps by Matthew Burns of WRAL
NC lawmakers to mapmakers: Don’t consider race in congressional districts by Craig Jarvis of The News & Observer
NC House sets congressional primary on June 7; Senate OKs new map by Craig Jarvis and Lynn Bonner of The News & Observer
Public Trust in Government: 1958-2015 by the Pew Research Center