North Carolina is frequently called Ground Zero for gerrymandering. Our state has been in court for almost two continuous decades arguing about drawing districts that illegally benefit one party or the other. Polls show that residents know more about the redistricting process than folks in other states. You would think that elected officials would fix the problem, but it’s never become a political issue that carries electoral consequences.
The current gerrymandering in North Carolina is egregious. The GOP has drawn districts that give them a 10-3 advantage in Congress and veto-proof majorities in both houses of the legislature despite winning the popular vote by only slightly more than 50%. Fairer districts might keep them in the majority but not by the margins they hold today.
However, progressives who see fixing gerrymandering as a panacea to their political ills will find themselves deeply disappointed. Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight laid out the problem with blaming gerrymandering for political polarization and concentration of power. He looked at the results of presidential campaigns by county since 1992. Since only districts can be gerrymandered, counties reflect the political will of the people who live there. In 1996, the presidential vote was decided by less than 10 points in 35% of the counties in the country. By 2016, that was down to 10%. Maps show the country with large swaths of deep red.
People who support Democrats or more progressive ideals may make up a small majority of the country, but they live in concentrated areas. They’re confined largely to states along the coasts with a few in urban areas in the upper Midwest. Judging from the map, the trend from the 1992 to 2016 sure looks tough for Democrats going forward. Red areas are getting redder and competitive regions are shrinking. As Enten notes, it’s not the politicians who are getting more extreme; it’s the voters.
Democrats can claim that they won the popular vote in 2016, but that doesn’t matter as far as governing. They should let go of the pipe dream that they’re somehow going to end the electoral college. They’ll never get two-thirds of the Senate and House to go along. They should also disavow themselves of the notion that districts should somehow reflect the political divisions within the states. The whole point of districts is to give voice to people who live in regions whose views might not reflect the state as a whole.
Democrats might be able to win control of Congress and a few state legislatures in a wave year like the one that seems to be shaping up in 2018, but they’ll have hard time holding them if they don’t do things differently. The way I see it, they have two choices: build a bigger tent and accept more moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia or Sen. Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota or instigate a mass migration of younger, more progressive voters into small towns and rural communities across the country. It seems building the bigger tent is the easier and more pragmatic route.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >