Editorial: Just do the right thing

Dec. 28, 2013 @ 03:24 PM

If you’re sipping a cup of coffee or orange juice right now, put it down before reading the next sentence.

There’s a politician in Raleigh who championed an idea that once would have benefitted his political party, but he still champions it now that it would seem to hurt his party; he just thinks it’s the right thing to do.

Maybe we should have warned you to sit down too.

State Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican from Apex, is the lead sponsor of House Bill 606, which would change the way that North Carolina draws district lines for congressional and legislative elections.

Currently, in every state the lines are drawn by the party in control of the state legislature, and they have always been drawn to try to maximize the party’s number of seats. Democrats and Republicans both do it, and there is no difference in the lengths to which they will go. Computers and deep demographic data now allow that gerrymandering to be carried to ridiculous levels, however, resulting in situations such as North Carolina’s congressional delegation being split 9-4 in favor of Republicans, who received a total of 49 percent of the vote in 2012 races. Under Democratic gerrymandering, similarly disjointed results were found.

The result of such extreme gerrymandering is that final election results effectively are determined in the party primary, which results in both parties’ candidates being driven to their ideological extremes. That ensures a level of gridlock and also whiplash for voters every time the party in power changes, because there are few moderates in either.

HB 606 seeks to fix this problem by setting clear and simple rules for drawing district lines, and by turning over the task to the legislature’s professional staff – career staff who serve through Republican and Democratic control alike. The rules would expressly forbid using information about political affiliations of registered voters, previous election results, and demographic information other than population head counts.

We think it needs to go further to remove human interference, but the bill is a tremendous step in the right direction.

Stam is making a push for the bill now because, as he puts it, redistricting reform has the best chance when neither party can anticipate the outcome of the next census-year election. New district lines won’t be drawn until after the 2020 census, so whoever wins control of the legislature in 2020 will draw the lines. If you can predict which party will win, you are wasting your time here and ought to be in Vegas building a fortune for your grandkids. After all, who would have predicted in 2009 that after two straight national drubbings Republicans would come back so strong in 2010?

Now is the time for redistricting reform, not because Republicans are now in charge but because no one can be sure who will be in charge in 2021, so that means everyone can (though many won’t) focus on doing the right thing.

The sticking point on this is the state Senate. A redistricting-reform bill passed the House in 2011 by a wide, bipartisan margin – 88-27. Supporters included House Speaker Thom Tillis. Republican leaders in the Senate have not been as willing to consider the possibility that their party could lose power after the next census.

But ultimately, this is not about power, it’s about keeping communities intact for electoral purposes so that when voters once again choose their leaders rather than their leaders picking and choosing which voters they want.