Fixing gerrymandering won’t save the Democrats

by | Jan 29, 2018 | Editor's Blog, Redistricting | 11 comments

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.


  1. J P F

    If eliminating gerrymandering won’t make a difference, then the Republicans have nothing to fear with politically-neutral districts.

    I’m an independent, and believe partisan gerrymandering violates our democratic principles of government.
    For democracy to work, everyone’s voice and vote need to be equal. Partisan gerrymandering, (I don’t care which party), makes some votes count more than others, and needs to be eliminated.

    Let’s be honest… Admit it… Republicans are more guilty of partisan gerrymandering the Dems.
    Right is right, and wrong is wrong.
    It’s far past time conservatives “played fair”. But it seems “today’s” Republicans lack the ethics, morals or willingness to do what is right..

    Today’s Republican party appears “afraid”. Yes, afraid to do what is “right” for our country.
    They are fearful that if they have to compete on a level playing field, they will lose…

    Sadly, today’s Republicans are not the party I once admired and respected…

    – Republicans are also actively opposing efforts to re-district states in a “fair and non-partisan” manner.
    If they are doing what voters want, if they are doing what’s best for the average American citizen, they will get the votes to win…
    – Both parties, (but mostly the Republicans, have “refused” to work in a bi-partisan fashion the last 10 years, which hurt everyone.
    – And Republicans are trying to over-turn Democratic wins in recent special elections.
    If they don’t trust the electoral process, why should we, the voters trust the process?

    It’s become clear the Republican party is acting “only” in the best interest of “the party”, and not in the best interest of individual Americans.

    Bottom-line, partisan gerrymandering is bad for our country and our democratic form of government.
    Every American’s vote should be equal.

  2. Lee Mortimer

    Thomas is often correct in his policy prescriptions to help move our state and nation forward. But his choices here miss the point. Democrats should not have to alter political priorities and “build a bigger tent” simply to attract more moderate and conservative voters. And neither should they have to “instigate a mass migration of younger, more progressive voters into small towns and rural communities.”

    Republicans understand well the structural advantage they hold because Democrats are increasingly concentrated in urban and metropolitan strongholds, while their voters are more evenly distributed. They know well the system requires more Democratic votes to win fewer legislative and congressional seats. And it’s why Republicans want to hold on to the system of single-member districts, even if they eventually and grudgingly accept “non-partisan redistricting.”

    What’s needed is a structural change away from exclusive use of single-member districts. Representation in legislative bodies should first and foremost reflect how the citizens of our state and nation cast their votes — no matter where they live. There is no justification for saying if you live in a city or suburb, your vote should count less than if you live in a small town or rural community.

    Our structural defect could be rectified with more multimember and at-large representation. Germany pioneered such a “mixed-member” district and at-large system after World War II. Half the seats in the German parliament are elected from single-member districts, and half are elected from regional and national candidate lists. The at-large seats are allocated to align a party’s share of legislative seats with its overall share of the vote.

    In recent years, New Zealand’s parliament and the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales have followed the German example. We could do something similar, perhaps with a smaller share of at-large seats. For example, our General Assembly could have a 90%-10% division of district and at-large seats. Our state congressional delegation could have 10 district seats with three statewide seats allocated to ensure that votes and seats are aligned.

    I have been working with Common Cause/NC to formulate such a proposal. Through their advocacy and legal challenges, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have made great strides toward fair redistricting reform. We may finally be on the threshold of breaking the cycle of gerrymandering and unending redistricting lawsuits.

  3. ebrun

    A realistic and refreshing assessment. As long as liberal voters concentrate in large cities and their immediate suburbs and more conservative voters spread out more evenly throughout a state, the Democrats will be at a disadvantage when election districts are drawn. But liberals forget that the big metro areas have an advantage in statewide elections.

    If Democrats voters are truly in the majority in NC, they should be able to win statewide elections even if they control only a few metropolitan counties. A perfect example of this was the last Governor’s race where Cooper won a few metro counties with overwhelming majorities (like late reporting Durham) while most of the rest of the state went for McCrory..

    So one could contend that there is a fair urban/rural, big city/small city or Democrat/Republican balance under the current arrangement. Democrats have an edge in statewide elections while Republicans have an advantage in district elections. So any attempt to draw or gerrymander legislative districts to give big city voters more clout in district elections could upset this balance and result in a few metro areas dominating state politics.

    Of course, I know liberals and Democrats would love to fix thing that way, but Republicans, small city, small town and rural voters will resist their attempts to dominate state politics.


      That example would demonstrate more validity had McCrory not been the sole major Rep officeholder to lose. As has been pointed out before, McCrory committed the most stupid political sin by purposefully alienating various members of his coalition over the course his term. Anti-toll roaders, commercial fishermen, descendants of confederate veterans, Rep activists angry with McCrory’s excessive meddling in Party affairs……all of them had a reason to blow off McCrory at election time, and they did just that.

  4. A.D. Reed

    I’m wondering just who claims that redrawing the maps will “fix” all the problems. Someone wrote the exact same thing in the Washington Post this morning, making the same arguments.

    I have yet to hear ANYONE make such a claim. Those people I’ve listened to, read, and heard about don’t say any such thing. What they DO say is that fairer maps will be a first step toward ensuring that voters choose their representatives, not the other way around. The other straw man, that gerrymandering is then root of all evil in the political ugliness that has seized the nation, is also false. Advocates of fair, unbiased, nonpartisan redistricting DO say that gerrymandering is the natural outcome of a politics in which one side does not trust the voters, and therefore does everything in its power to disempower them.

    The Republicans gerrymander, as Democrats have done in the past (though not with such utter contempt for honesty or fairness); but they also suppress the vote in a variety of ways, from disenfranchising legitimate voters using Kris Kobach’s Kansas voter list, which identifies Hispanic surnames and typical African American names (first names like Tyrone and last names like Washington), to prohibiting voting to former felons, to closing polling places in low-income, black, and majority Democratic precincts, to rigging voting machines to flip votes, to rigging the county and state election boards, to pushing through the Citizens United court ruling ….

    Gerrymandering is bad for democracy, but so are all those other corrupt practices. Fixing one will not solve the others, but it will be a necessary first step to leveling the playing field so that progressive candidates can actually be seated in legislatures by winning elections — rather than winning elections statewide but being “given” only a small minority of seats.

    Enough with the straw men, Thomas. We know you’re frustrated because your own campaign might be affected by judicially mandated redistricting; I’m far more interested in the rights of the voters to choose their representatives than in your desire to choose your own electorate.

  5. Randell Hersom

    Emphasize Market Research and de-emphasize Messaging.
    1. Find out what the people want.
    2. Give the people what they want.
    3. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
    4. Get reelected, then start back at 1

    A great way to really emphasize that you are an employee of the voting public is to make a binding promise to resign if your support dips below 45%. Restoring control of congress to the people is a challenging task for both the candidate and the voter, but we have to get this done, and now. The leader must educate but never go against the will of his constituents.

    Any hint that the status quo is more important than the will of the people will be detected. Why should they bother changing their government if very little will really change for them.

  6. Jay Ligon

    Fair redistricting maps in North Carolina would not automatically create Democratic majorities; it would make Democratic representation possible and would more closely reflect the will of North Carolina’s voters.

    Since the turn of the century, computer technology at our fingertips has expanded exponentially. The average laptop today is faster and capable of processing more data than an office full of 1980s desktops. That technical capability coupled with available personal data changed how redistricting was done in 2010 after the last Constitutionally-mandated census.

    As an example of the advent of personal data into our daily lives, anyone who goes to court today to serve on a jury will become the object of a personal information search involving more depth than was ever possible. Lawyers will look at your Facebook page, your social media writings, and much, much more. They may know more about the views and preferences of candidates for jury service than their friends, neighbors and some family members. That data is available, and it is for sale.

    The ability to crunch that personal information data with high-speed computers gives those who draw maps the ability to know with surprising precision who will vote and how they will vote. Programs like REDMAP give the drawers of the maps the ability to select who will be able to vote for whom.

    Republicans deployed this form of gerrymandering, unknown in the United States in the past, after the 2010 census with such precision and in such a partisan manner that Democrats have been trying for most of this decade to understand what hit them. What hit them was virtually impenetrable district lines using what is called “cracking” and “packing.”

    According to a Tufts University study, North Carolina is the living example of gerrymandering in its most extreme form.
    In 2008, the number of Congressional representatives from each party was roughly equivalent to the number of voters from each party – 8 to 5. Today, the numbers are completely distorted and they reflect only the partisan bias of the map drawers.

    Out of 13 congressional districts, Republicans have 10 seats and Democrats have 3. Gerrymandering has created a super majority in the state legislature. These districts make a mockery of the notion of representative democracy.

    The Pollyanna view is that Democrats must get out the vote and change their message.

    It will not change things. Democrats are “packed” in three districts where they win big. Republicans are spread out over 10 districts where they win by small margins. A robust effort by Democrats to excite the base will only create bigger majorities in three districts and maybe a slightly tighter margins of victory in the ten districts. Every election since 2010 has confirmed that gerrymandered district lines have held up against the will of the people.

    In Virginia last November, Democrats came out in droves to vote for a Democratic governor and against a Republican. The margin was not close 54% to 45%, but the Republicans held onto the majority in the legislature, by one vote. Gerrymandering still created over-representation of Republicans in the face a statewide landslide for Democrats.

    In North Carolina, a margin of 10% would not be enough to overcome the advantage of packing and cracking. Democrats must do many things to win elections but gerrymandering districts makes it almost impossible to get rid of minority candidates if the lines are drawn in their favor.

  7. Tom

    This is only true if the majority of the citizens of our country – who live in a minority of our counties – accept the idea that the US Congress should be controlled by people who represent acreage rather than people. Some of these counties – look at the county by county results in a state like Washington or Montana or even Georgia or Louisiana – have less than 2,000 voters in them. Many have less than 5,000. There are some with less than 1,000. The results in 2012 and 2016 in the national vote for the US Senate are dramatic demonstrations of this political reality. The Democrats defeated the Republicans by almost 11 million votes. in both of those years. The Democratic nominee for President got more votes in two national presidential primaries -2008 and 2016 – than have been cast for a candidate of either political party in the entire history of the nation. These comparisons beg the question of whether a national electorate will long tolerate a system designed for a time when it took weeks to get to the national capital. Let me hear the words that you use to say to a citizen of California “hey, a voter in North Dakota is worth 52 times as much as you”; or even to a voter in North Carolina “hey, a voter in Vermont is worth 16 times as much as you.” Not so long, I think.

  8. Ron

    While both parties have abused the redistricting process it was the GOP that “weaponized” it. After the 2000 census was done and new districts were drawn it was Tom Delay, unhappy that Democrats still held seats in Congress, redistricted again 2002 eliminating 5 Democratic Representatives from the Texas delegation. Even the Bush Justice Dept. said that was wrong. If the GOP in NC, and Fl where I reside, and nationwide make it where their political opposition has NO chance of winning an election then this is no longer a democratic republic. And don’t forget it was Karl Rove who bragged about creating a “permanent republican majority”. The American people will come to regret giving the reins of power to these people. Of that I have no doubt.

  9. feedupvoter

    Who drew the first snake district from Greensboro to Charlotte?
    To me that is what started the crazy looking districts.

    • The Ghost of Elections Past

      Although the Democrats were in power when the “I-85” congressional district was formed, that plan at least had the saving grace of attempting to allow some representation to take place which might allow minority candidates to win at least one seat. It did not close off most of the state to everyone else. Since that time, fascists have been using that excuse to try to provide some moral justification for the anti-democratic (with a small ‘d’) wholesale take-over of the entire state government.

      If we can get some improved system, I’d like to see districts allocated by a nonpartisan commission. Although there is a lot of noise, the best government appears to happen when the parties are in somewhat of a balance so no one can dictate (as in ‘dictator’) all government policy.

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