Gerrymandering is undoubtedly a blight on American democracy and a tool used by reactionary forces to thwart others’ aspirations for self-government. It is also beyond question that redistricting abuses have been committed more egregiously by Republicans than by Democrats, and nowhere is this more true than in our state of North Carolina. The state’s distorted legislative maps have warped state politics for a decade. Democrats are right to be outraged at gerrymandering in North Carolina and across the country.
The problem is that Democrats have begun to use gerrymandering as an excuse. Yes, Democrats were twice denied majorities in either the legislative or Congressional delegations by the rigged outlines that Republicans have imposed upon elections in the state. This happened in U.S. House races in 2012, and again in state-legislative elections in 2018. But the blunt fact is that those years were the only two times in the last decade that Democrats won the popular vote for those respective bodies.
When Democrats lament the 2010’s, they too often attribute the party’s failures to malfeasance in the redistricting process. This explanation is too easy–and too exculpatory. If Democrats truly had a majority of the state on their side, they would have won the popular vote for congressional or legislative races on a consistent basis, as, indeed, Republicans won the popular vote for state house numerous times in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Unlike Republicans who were denied a majority by the legislative maps, North Carolina Democrats have consistently fallen short of 50% for a decade.
Again, none of this is to deny the genuine evils of gerrymandering. It is anti-democratic and racist. The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to absolve itself of oversight over map making was an act of dereliction. But Democrats in North Carolina cannot claim their party’s struggles owe entirely to the practice; in reality, they have simply lost touch with a critical mass of voters outside the state’s urban cores.
As John Hood noted in a recent column, Donald Trump won North Carolina’s rural areas with 59% of the vote and took the critical suburbs by 60%-39%. Democrats dominated in the major cities and college towns, but in a state where the cities are generally on the smaller side that was not enough to overcome the red tide that swamped supermajorities of voters in non-urban North Carolina. Until Democrats improve their performance in rural areas and exurbs, they will not be able to win most statewide races, and their quest for a popular mandate, in spite of gerrymandering, will remain unfulfilled.
There are numerous ways to address this problem, and I do not claim to know which will work best. Clearly, Democrats need to close the turnout gap with Republicans by registering and mobilizing more Democratic-friendly voters. Happily, many such voters live in non-urban areas east of Raleigh. And Democrats should also invest in a vigorous outreach campaign to bring suburban and exurban voters into their camp. Redistricting reform, long delayed, can and must happen eventually. But in the meantime, Democrats need to stop lying to themselves that they have won over a majority of North Carolinians and are being denied the legislative majority they deserve entirely because of maps that Republicans have so ruthlessly drawn.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.