In a previous post, I suggested that all redistricting is gerrymandering.
[Longleaf Politics story: Redistricting reform is just a search for a better gerrymander]
While we intuitively dislike the idea of politicians picking their voters in a way that prevents voters from picking their politicians, I suggested that any redistricting effort will reflect the biases of the map drawer.
FiveThirtyEight.com (Nate Silver’s data and politics site) recently showed Congressional maps drawn with different intents and in doing so, illustrates the whack-a-mole problem with redistricting. Knock down one redistricting problem, and another pops up.
There is a growing consensus that districts drawn explicitly to favor one party over the other undermine democracy by predetermining elections. North Carolina’s current maps yield a 10-3 GOP advantage and are therefore bad. An objective critique would find a Democratically skewed map equally bad.
So, neither of these maps will suffice1.
But what is better?
Some say that maps should be drawn in a way that maximizes competitive districts. Others want them drawn so that the Congressional delegation is divided to equate to roughly the same partisanship percentages as the residents of the state. FiveThirtyEight provides both maps for our consideration.
Looking first at the map to maximize competitiveness, we see map drawers still use the type of oddly shaped districts for which partisan mapmakers are damned. Even relatively compact districts combine communities with little in common (urban west Charlotte with rural Lincoln County, for instance). Advocates for more competitiveness must decide if they will tolerate gerrymandering to achieve it.
Other reformers seek not competitiveness, but balance. FiveThirtyEight attempted to create such a balance, though housing patterns appear to have prevented the type of 7-6 split that the last two presidential elections suggest is appropriate.
Those who want balance and compactness may like this map. Democrats may feel they’ve been shortchanged, getting 4 safe seats instead of 6, but they would probably take this incremental improvement.
There is one problem, though. But before discussing that, let’s look at what maps would look like if “compactness” was the goal.
Some reformers advocate a “results-blind” approach. They suggest drawing districts as compact as possible, and let the results fall where they may. FiveThirtyEight did, producing a map based on a mathematical algorithm to maximize compactness and another that honors county lines (a requirement of the North Carolina Constitution) while maximizing compactness.
The “most compact” map bolsters the claim of reformers that compact districts will create competitive races, with 5 districts identified as toss-ups. Since it doesn’t care about political subdivisions, it splits Charlotte in half, an outcome not likely imagined by those advocating for compactness.
Meanwhile, the compact map honoring county lines moves the state to a closer proportional split, but still leaves the Democrats at a three-seat disadvantage (at best) in a state that is evenly divided.
Reformers may look at the last four maps and say, “None is perfect, but all are better than a partisan gerrymander. Each has at least one competitive seat, and all except the competitive district map are likely to produce a Congressional delegation that looks more like North Carolina.”
Except, that last statement is wrong in one very significant way.
North Carolina’s population is roughly 26% African-American. North Carolina’s redistricting merry-go-round started in 1992 when the U.S. Justice Department under President George W. Bush cited the Voting Rights Act to require the state to create two districts (of 12 at the time) where African-Americans could elect the representative of their choosing. Since that time, African-Americans have become a larger percentage of the state’s population.
But none of the last four maps, according to FiveThirtyEight, would likely produce two minority representatives. The “competitive” and “most compact” maps would likely not elect any. Meanwhile, those two partisan gerrymanders each would likely elect two.
Given the growing African-American population, a justification can be made that there should be three districts that are likely to elect black members of Congress. FiveThirtyEight gives us that map, and with it the return of a district snaking up I-85 from Charlotte to Greensboro and a southeast district that connects Ocean Isle to the Raleigh suburbs.
That’s the rub of redistricting. You can’t get everything you want.
You have to decide: Is it more important to have competitive districts or proportional representation? Are either more important than having compact districts? And are you willing take away the ability of African-Americans to elect the representative of their choosing in order to achieve any of those goals?
Brian Francis is president of Francis Consulting Services, a strategic communications firm that helps businesses, governments and non-profits achieve their strategic goals through effective communications. He launched the country’s first online redistricting tool as part of the 2011 Mecklenburg County Commission redistricting and recently was chief strategist on the successful $920 million Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bond campaign.