Imagine you’re running a match-play golf tournament.
Your team will face another for a big cash prize, and you choose the course. The two teams have very different strengths, so you pick a course where your team is almost assured of winning 13 of the 18 holes.
Furthermore, because you are running the tournament, you can change any rules you want to further help your team. Maybe you ban three woods because the other team has strong three-wood players.
Welcome to the world of American political gerrymandering. While the situation exists in Republican-controlled North Carolina, it also exists in many other states, blue and red. Maryland’s districts, for example, are rigged to favor Democrats.
Gerrymandering allows legislatures to distort the democratic process and to rig congressional elections, as evidenced by the predominance of Republican congressmen in this purple state.
One obvious solution to gerrymandering’s distortion of democratic principles is to have independent, non-partisan commissions draw political districts, that is, to have an independent body select the tournament’s golf course, so to speak, and to set the rules of play.
But ask yourself this: If you were in control of a big-time tournament with big cash prizes and you had a huge advantage, would you change the rules to help your opponents?
Even given my disdain for the torture of the golf course, I wouldn’t. Every hole would dog leg to my slice, and players would get mulligans for every ball hit in the water.
In North Carolina, proposals for independent redistricting commissions have been around for as long as I can remember. First, majority Democrats rejected them while minority Republicans supported. Now it is the other way around. It’s just human nature to want to win.
That’s why in many of the 23 states that have some form of independent redistricting commission, the reform came about due to something called petition and referendum. That is, supporters got a redistricting commission proposal on the ballot and voters approved it, thus sidestepping the politicians.
In some states, like Arizona, politicians are totally cut out of the process. In others, the commissions are loaded with pols. Ohio is such an example.
In North Carolina, House Bill 200 calls for a redistricting commission, but the bill languishes and won’t pass. In Maryland, Democrats passed a cynically clever bill that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed. That bill would have created an independent redistricting commission only if five other states, from New York to North Carolina, also did so. Maryland Democrats argued that they don’t want to give up the unfair Democratic seats they hold in Congress until North Carolina Republicans give up their unfair seats.
With the country running out of states that allow the end-around tactic of citizen petitions, future nationwide reform will slow. (North Carolina Republicans promised a petition and referendum constitutional amendment in 1994 but then backed off that promise, and legislative term limits, after they won control of the 1995 House.)
So, we have one hope: The U.S. Supreme Court. But it’s not much of a hope.
The high court recently overturned North Carolina’s old congressional maps on grounds that they were racially gerrymandered. Democrats cheered, obviously overlooking parts of the opinions that confirmed that legislatures have the authority to gerrymander for partisan purpose.
In other words, the justices said, politicians can rig the golf tournament in as many ways as they wish, except that they can’t discriminate against minorities in the process.
Paul O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.