By Joe Wiswell
Last Saturday community members gathered at the Boone Unitarian Universalist Fellowship for Redistricting Reform 101, a form on Gerrymandering led by UNC Chapel Hill Student and Watauga High School graduate Nate Fischer. Gerrymandering refers to the unfair drawing of electoral districts in order to favor a particular political party or racial group. North Carolina is widely recognized as one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. In attendance was the state representative for district 93, Watauga and Ashe counties, Johnathan Jordan (Republican), as well as the challenger to his seat Ray Russell (Democrat). At the beginning of the forum Jordan and Russell squared off, both offering statements that expressed disdain for gerrymandering and resolved to work for non-partisan redistricting.
Ray Russell went first, attacking Jordan’s record of voting for several bills that created gerrymandered districts that were later declared unconstitutional by courts. Those bills include SB 689 (2011), HB 937 (2011), SB 455 (2011), SB 2 (2016), and HB 927 (2017). Russell said, “During his 8 years in office, the incumbent has never voted for a redistricting bill that held up to a court challenge,” though Russell went on to say that Jordan had proposed three non-partisan redistricting bills. They include HB 92 (2015), HB 49 (2015), and HB 200 (2017). None of those bills have made it to the House floor for a vote.
Representative Jordan responded first by pointing out that gerrymandering has been a serious issue in North Carolina for the past thirty years, and that most of that time Democrats were in power. “Both sides have responsibility here,” he said. He then addressed Russell’s concerns more directly, saying that pushing a bill through a legislature whose leadership is hostile is a time-consuming process, and that he bills he’s proposed failed for large-scale reasons beyond his control.
Representative Jordan’s point that both sides of the political aisle gerrymander is well taken in a state where anti-gerrymandering groups have worked alongside both sides of the aisle to stop gerrymandering. Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a non-partisan anti-gerrymandering group, was there and repeatedly reiterated that he had worked with both Republicans and Democrats in stop gerrymandering. North Carolina has only been gerrymandered to favor Republicans since Democrats lost control of the state government back in 2010.
However, more has changed over the past decade than who is gerrymandering. Gerrymandering in general is getting worse. One topic of discussion was the role technology has played in helping to draw electoral districts that look better but still achieved the results desired by their party. Beginning with the 2000 census, politicians found they could use computers running Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software to test out many, fine tuned maps at once in order to find the most efficient way to gerrymander. Due to these advances gerrymandering is now a fine-tuned science, and an extremely gerrymandered state may no longer have all those strange-looking, snake-like districts, making it more difficult to recognize. Since it was first developed in the mid-1990s, Republicans have used GIS software to help open-up massive advantages over democrats (“How Redistricting Became a Technological Arms Race”). For example, in 2016 Republicans got only 53% of the vote, but ended up taking 10 out of the state’s 13 congressional seats.
Another cause for concern was the U.S. Supreme Court striking down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013. The portion of the Voting Rights act that was struck down required states and municipalities with a history of voting discrimination against minorities to submit their redrawn electoral districts for federal approval. The Voting Rights Act was adopted in 1965 based on long histories of racial discrimination in several states, including North Carolina. In 2013, though, the 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court indicated that times had changed, and that the Voting Rights Act was now an unjustifiable intrusion into state’s rights.
As Redistricting Reform 101 showed, drawing truly non-partisan electoral districts is a difficult job. Besides a few loose federal rules, there is a lot of room for debate over how districts can be drawn. The federal requirements are:
Districts must be equal or nearly equal in population.
Districts cannot disenfranchise minorities (The Gingles Test), or, as of January 2018, favor a political party.
Districts must be contiguous
After that, a slew of subjective considerations have to be made. These include:
Keeping cities and counties whole.
Keeping communities whole.
Having a regular shape.
Having a number of competitive districts.
Following natural geographical boundaries.
Keeping Metropolitan Areas whole.
Each state must decide how it will prioritize these considerations, and different priorities can create very different maps.
To help further explain the process, Nate Fisher walked people through the Dave’s Redistricting App, available here: http://gardow.com/davebradlee/redistricting/launchapp.html. This app is just one of the many expected to be available by 2020. These apps give ordinary citizens the power to see what gerrymandering politicians are up to, and might have an effect on how people Gerrymandering in the information age. The app requires Internet Explorer, and several other plugins. More information is available on the website. The software is not difficult to use, and anyone interested in the technical side of redistricting and gerrymandering should check it out.
Also in attendance was Dr. Saskia Van De Gevel of Appstate’s Geography and Planning Department. She brought her massive floor map of North Carolina to help teach about the movement of people across North Carolina throughout its history. Dr. Van De Gevel said that the National Geographic Map of North Carolina is an excellent resource for this kind of event and for K-12 education. It’s a tangible centerpiece that can get both adults and children engaged with learning about geography, history, and even math, and there are numerous lesson plans already made for it. It’s available from National Geographic for $700, or you can email Dr. Van De Gevel (at firstname.lastname@example.org) and arrange for her to take it anywhere in the state to give lessons.