When Politicians Draw Their Own Districts, Voters Lose
I had a job interview last week. I walked into a room where a half-dozen people would decide if I got hired. Before the process began, I took a bold step. I picked the four people I thought were most likely to hire me and asked the other two to pack their things and leave.
I confess. The above situation is hypothetical — and laughable. No one would really dictate to their prospective employer that someone can’t participate in the hiring process. But down at the N.C. General Assembly something very similar is about to happen.
It’s called redistricting, and it’s the process of drawing the boundaries of the districts that legislators and congressmen represent. There is a long history of the people who are in charge of drawing the lines abusing that power to handpick which voters they want — or don’t want — in their districts.
Someone has to draw district lines, and the incentive to shape them favorably for a particular political party or incumbent is almost irresistible. The late state Sen. Hamilton Horton (R-Forsyth) used to say that we need to get away from a system where legislators choose their voters and instead allow voters to choose their legislators.
The N.C. Constitution gives redistricting authority to the legislature, but nothing is set in stone. Other states have experimented with an independent commission, essentially a group of outsiders that would come in and draw district lines without trying to carve out favorable districts.
It makes sense. Taking the power away from the legislators themselves would remove the temptation to stack the deck in favor of one party or candidate.
Critics say it is impossible to remove politics from redistricting and that a commission would just get filled with cronies who would do the bidding of whoever appointed them. But instead of having the commission appointed by the legislature, we could turn it over to someone else. We could even select the independent commission similar to the way we select juries, from a pool of citizens.
No system is perfect, but what we have now is maybe the worst system possible. Incumbents do everything they can to keep their seats, and consequently there are very few truly competitive districts. Few people even bother running for office because favorably drawn districts make it so hard to have a legitimate shot at winning.
And since the redistricting process happens during the legislative session, whoever gets to draw the map can use that power to horse-trade for support on an unrelated piece of legislation. It’s not uncommon to hear about a deal where a legislator supports a bill in exchange for a more favorable district.
As a testament to the widespread support for an independent redistricting commission, a broad coalition of organizations has recently formed North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform. These groups come from across the political spectrum, including the conservative John Locke Foundation and progressive NC Policy Watch, but they are all dedicated to ensuring the redistricting process is open, fair and includes significant public input.
Ultimately, the responsibility for redistricting should rest with an independent body, not the state legislature.
The Republican leadership in the House and Senate has rightly called for such a commission in the past. Here’s hoping they are true to their word now that they hold the reins of power.
Elected officials are supposed to work for the citizens of North Carolina. When it comes to hiring them, we should all have an equal say.
Damon Circosta is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, dedicated to helping citizens more fully participate in democracy.
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