By Andrew Dunn
Even in a so-called “purple” state, politics feel just as polarized in North Carolina as they are nationally. Even a decade ago, candidates seemed to be more moderate — centrist, even. Today, the candidates who make it through primaries seem to be farther to the left or right.
Here are four ways we could help fix things. None of them are completely original, just untried on a large scale in our state.
1) Independent redistricting
This idea has been floated for decades — but only by the political party that doesn’t run the General Assembly.
In North Carolina, the state legislature sets the boundaries for all of our political districts every 10 years — for their own seats and for the U.S. House of Representatives. These determine who votes in what races.
And this exercise is just as political as anything else in the state capitol. Under current law, the ruling party is allowed to draw the districts to maximize their political advantage. They can draw boundaries to create the maximum number of safe seats for their party.
Now, this power isn’t absolute. They’re not allowed to target voters based on race, and in North Carolina, race and party tend to coincide. This is what has driven the repeated challenges of the Republicans’ district plans in federal court.
But this also means that political races are mostly determined during the party primaries, where the electorate is more polarized. Candidates don’t have to worry about being appealing to the other side of the aisle because there’s no risk of losing in the general election.
If the state brought consultants in to draw truly independent districts, we’d see more intuitive borders and a more heterogeneous electorate. More seats would be up for grabs. Therefore, the candidates able to find success would have to appeal to more types of people.
It’s not truly fair to criticize our state’s Republican Party for resisting independent redistricting. As they point out, Democrats had a century to implement the policy before they lost control of the legislature. The argument is childish but has logic.
That’s why it will likely take an external actor to make this happen. The U.S. Supreme Court could require independent redistricting in our lifetimes, and our state would probably be better off for it.
2) In at-large elections, only vote for one seat instead of a slate of candidates.
A number of cities — including Charlotte — have councils that include both representatives that are elected in districts within the city and representatives elected by the city as a whole.
But oddly enough, each voter gets to pick more than one candidate in these at-large races. In Charlotte, voters get to choose four candidates because there are four at-large seats. For the last three election cycles, this has meant four Democrats have won seats on the city council in Charlotte, and they’ve gone increasingly toward the left.
If voters were only allowed to choose one candidate, the results would be local councils that are more ideologically diverse. Having four choices allows ruling parties to effectively shut out opposition. One choice would allow popular candidates from minority parties to get a say.
3) Open primaries
In North Carolina, we have a “semi-open primary.” Republicans must vote in Republican primaries, Democrats the same — but unaffiliated voters are able to choose which primary to vote in. With “unaffiliated” as the fastest growing group in the state, this is a good start. But presumably things could go one step further and we could have a truly open primary. This would allow even registered Democrats to choose to vote in Republican primaries if they live in a “safe” district. I’m less sold on this option, but it’s out there.
4) Top-two primaries
This one shows a lot of promise. Eleven states have moved to this system, which throws all the candidates in together in primary races rather than pick a Democrat and a Republican. The top two finishers in this primary face each other in the general election, even if voters select two Democrats or two Republicans.
Because they must appeal to a broad base in their first race, this tends to draw more moderate candidates.
It could be worth a try in North Carolina.