Duke B. Paris, the longtime Alamance County register of deeds, liked to tell the story of when he was Gov. Kerr Scott’s campaign driver and they stopped to see a moonshiner who controlled the votes in his mountain hollow.
After being awakened from a night of drinking, the man assured Scott: “The precinct will be 100 percent for you.” As they were leaving, the moonshiner came running after them. “Let’s make it 98 percent for you. One hundred percent wouldn’t look regular.”
While there are no longer moonshiners stuffing ballot boxes in the mountains as there was after World War II, there are still a lot of election returns in North Carolina that don’t “look regular” thanks to gerrymandered districts.
During last fall’s general election, 76 of 170 N.C. General Assembly races featured an incumbent state lawmaker running with no major-party opposition. Only 16 of the 170 elections were competitive – meaning the winning margin was less than 10 percentage points.
None of the state’s 13 U.S. House races were competitive in the general election.
It is particularly striking that these one-sided elections are being held in North Carolina – one of the nation’s leading battleground states, home to some of the closest presidential, governor and U.S. Senate races in the country.
As a I wrote in a column years ago – when Democrats still ruled the legislative roost – we have Soviet-style elections where the winner is predetermined before the first ballot is ever cast.
Is it any wonder that people are cynical about politics? Or that people think the system is rigged? Or that voters gravitated in the last presidential elections toward outsiders, such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, who promised to shake up the system?
Gerrymandering has been a political tool for a long time, dating back at least to the 1870s when the Democrats isolated black Republican voters in the 2nd congressional district in Eastern North Carolina.
The Democrats cynically used redistricting for decades to disadvantage Republican candidates for Congress and the legislature. But with sophisticated computer software, lawmakers can now draw districts with partisan precision that their predecessors could only dream about.
North Carolina’s electoral maps have been cited by national studies as among the most gerrymandered in the country.
What that means is that most legislators or members of Congress don’t have to listen to what a cross-section of their constituency thinks on any particular issue. Because they are in safe Republican or Democratic districts, all they have to do is make sure they are sufficiently conservative (in Republican districts) or sufficiently liberal (in Democratic districts) to avoid a serious primary challenge.
There is a citizen’s movement across the country to implement fair redistricting, ending the practice of politicians choosing their own constituents. Twenty-four states have set up independent redistricting commissions to draw fair, compact districts.
Once again, legislation to create an independent redistricting commission in North Carolina went nowhere in the session that recently ended.
Convincing politicians to give up power is like trying to teach a dog to play a piano. Theoretically, it is possible, but I have never seen it done.
The federal courts, however, may have something to say about it.
North Carolina has three cases pending in federal court challenging how much leeway lawmakers have in drawing congressional districts with partisan motives. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to Wisconsin’s redistricting in the fall that could affect North Carolina.
The high court earlier this year affirmed a ruling that 28 state legislative districts were illegal racial gerrymanders that diluted the overall influence of black voters.
Apparently, North Carolina’s elections didn’t look “regular” to the Supreme Court either.
Rob Christensen has covered politics for The News & Observer of Raleigh for nearly four decades, and is also the author of The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.