Last night, the Senate approved new maps. Now, we have legislative districts that have been drawn by legislators and have bipartisan support. It’s been a long time coming, but don’t believe it’s the beginning of a trend. North Carolina still needs a better system for redistricting.
Our state has been contesting maps since the 1980s. For about 25 years, Republicans sued Democrats over gerrymandered districts. They often prevailed in court. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, districts were ordered redrawn and in one case drawn by a judge. Contrary to their claims, Republicans won in 2010 in districts that had been redrawn to make them more favorable to the GOP.
The GOP redistricting in 2011 was the most extreme in North Carolina history. Republicans had the advantage of new technology that allowed them to cherry-pick voters more easily and they hired a guy whose whole career was dedicated to rigging districts to draw the maps. In other words, they professionalized gerrymandering. They had virtually impenetrable majorities in both houses of the legislature and in Congressional districts despite North Carolina being one of the most closely divided states in the nation. Then, they bragged about it.
Not many honest observers thought the maps were fair. Republicans’ main argument is that Democrats did it to them for a hundred years, which was a bogus argument, too. As I said, the courts intervened in the redistricting process for two decades before Republicans got their shot. In the early 2000s, Republicans, including Senator Phil Berger, supported an independent redistricting commission.
Before the 1980 census, North Carolina was still largely a one-party state. We had mainly conservatives and moderates who lived uncomfortably together under the Democratic banner. Primaries were often bitter contests. In 1960, more than 80% of the state’s voters were registered as Democrats, including people like Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth who both later served as Republican US Senators.
Back then, Republicans hailed mainly from western NC where they elected GOP Congressmen. It would not have been possible to draw many Republican districts and our Congressional delegation, though Democrat, was sufficiently conservative for the state.
Gerrymandering arose as a problem because of the growth of the two-party South, beginning in the 1970s but taking off in the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. Since then, Democrats controlled the redistricting process following the 1990 and 2000 census. Republicans drew their districts following 2010. So, really Democrats have drawn them twice, Republicans once, since the advent of the modern two-party state in North Carolina. Let’s applaud legislators in both parties who worked together to get decent maps this week, but it’s time to get the process out of the courts and into the hands of a commission or less partisan body.