A three-judge federal panel on Tuesday voided North Carolina’s congressional map, on the grounds that the gerrymandered districts were ‘motivated by invidious partisan intent.’ In other words, the Republicans in North Carolina engineered congressional districts following the 2010 census in order to ensure most of the state’s districts were won by Republicans. Redrawing districts to partisan advantage has been a legal grey area ever since the advent of partisan politics in this country. But the panel has now set precedent that such practices are unconstitutional, and that’s a good thing.
One doesn’t have to look beyond the presidency to see the damage that gerrymandering can do. Yes, the presidency is not a congressional district, but the Electoral College is a bit of gerrymandering on the part of the founding fathers. It ensures that states with smaller populations will have a greater share of electors than states with larger populations. The result has been that in two of the last five presidential elections, the loser of the popular vote has won the election.
Something similar happens in states with gerrymandered districts. Rather than awarding an individual election to the loser of the popular vote, it can hand the majority of congressional districts in a state to the party that lost the popular vote statewide, or that only won a narrow majority. For example, in the 2016 congressional elections in North Carolina, Republican candidates captured about 53% of the vote statewide, yet won over 75% of the state’s congressional districts. That unbalance is intentional — purposely engineered by North Carolina Republicans — and it is that purposeful unbalance that the judges ruled unconstitutional.
A whole pile of factors goes into drawing congressional districts, and doing so fairly is no easy task. For one, like-minded people tend to congregate together, especially in this hyperpartisan era of American politics. Liberal-leaning voters tend to live in urban areas, while conservative-leaning voters favor rural environments. This self-segregation, especially in cities, makes for districts that are naturally heavy with one party’s voters versus another’s, so it would be expected that there would be wild swings in winning percentage. But one of the areas where the Republicans ran afoul of the constitution was in drawing lines around cities so that urban, liberal-leaning voters were packed into districts such that the democratic candidate received far more votes than they needed to win. Indeed, the average winning percentage for the three Democratic victors was 36.7%. Meanwhile, the average winning percentage for the ten Republican victors was 20.5%. Again, this outcome was intentional.
North Carolina has been ordered to redraw its districts before the end of the month, or the court will do it for them. This is a big pain in the ass for North Carolina, but they brought this on themselves. Gerrymandering has become a national problem — a genuine antidemocratic process — at the hands of the Republican Party. Victim to demographic and moral changes, the GOP has had to resort to changing the rules of democracy in order to hold onto power. This practice is unethical and immoral. Now, it is also illegal.
Hopefully, this ruling will be the first in a nationwide examination of congressional districts, and will result in fairer boundaries. No one should expect a true and total fix. After all, politicians will always pursue their own self-interests, but it is encouraging to see that someone out there with the ability to check the abuses of gerrymandering is doing so. What is less encouraging is that it took federal judges to make this happen. It would be nice if we could rely on those who were actually elected by the people to do the right thing.