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Perspective | Gerrymandering, the ballot box, and education

In preparation for the 1789 congressional elections, the first under the new U.S. Constitution, Patrick Henry and his anti-federalist allies in the Virginia General Assembly set out to thwart the candidacy of James Madison. They drew a disadvantageous district map, enacted a residency requirement, and recruited James Monroe as an opponent.

Madison eventually put aside his reluctance to campaign in person, met the challenge, and won the election. He went on to navigate the adoption of the 10 constitutional amendments known as the Bill of Rights and to become the nation’s fourth president. Monroe succeeded Madison in the presidency.

From the earliest days of the republic, American politicians, high and low, have wrangled over the processes of determining districts and of setting election rules and regulations. The maneuvering in the Virginia assembly came more than two decades before the creation of an odd-shaped Massachusetts district in 1812 put “gerrymander” into the political lexicon.

Of course, a long history is not a sanction. It’s been done before is not a justification. Redistricting matters not only for determining the level of power held by politicians and parties but also for shaping the legislative decision-making landscape on multiple issues — education, environment, health, policing, and more — that affect people’s lives. It’s crucial, therefore, that the legislative landscape offers voters a measure of confidence that their ballots matter in debating and determining governmental action.

Indirectly, that point arises in the ruling by state Court of Appeals judges who blocked Superior Court Judge David Lee’s order to spend $1.7 billion to implement a remedial education plan. By a 2-1 vote, the appeals panel declared, “The Separation of Powers Clause prevents the courts from stepping into the shoes of the other branches of government and assuming their constitutional duties. We have pronounced our judgment. If the other branches of government still ignore it, the remedy lies not with the courts, but at the ballot box.”

But what influence can voters exert through the ballot box in gerrymandered districts that leave most state legislators facing no challenge, or only token opposition, in the general election? Is the ballot box an effective remedy in legislative districts drawn to be distinctly Republican or Democratic, with only a meager few competitive, swing districts?

North Carolina is a competitive state with voters divided in ideology, education, wealth, race, and region. With a third of its voters registered as unaffiliated, neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party holds an assured statewide majority.

In 2020, Republican President Donald Trump carried the state with 49.9% of the votes; at the same time, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won re-election with 51.5%. While statewide results show a near 50-50 Democratic-Republican split, the nearly year-long legislative session ended shortly after the Republican majorities produced House and Senate redistricting schemes designed to sustain their party’s hold on power in the General Assembly.

Projections of the partisan line-up and of competitive districts differ in detail. But there is general agreement on two points: that the redistricting is skewed so that Republicans would hold significantly more safe districts than Democrats and that of the 120 House seats, fewer than 25 are considered competitive; of the 50 Senate seats, fewer than 10. Should a majority of voters want to use the ballot box to support public school funding to achieve a sound basic education, how could they do so?

(See analyses from The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, The New York Times, the Campaign Legal Center, and The News & Observer.)

Since the 1980s, the redistricting handiwork of the North Carolina General Assembly — by both Democrats and Republicans — has been thrust into a national spotlight through landmark court cases, some of which have contributed to national standards on race and partisanship in drawing districts. Now the 2021 redistricting faces legal challenges, with a focus more on state than federal courts.

Section 10 of the North Carolina State Constitution’s “declaration of rights” succinctly asserts that “All elections shall be free.” In their exercise of the right to free elections, more North Carolinians than ever before — 5.54 million — voted in 2020 general elections. So many people cast ballots not only because they see voting as a civic duty but also because their votes mattered in the competitive elections for president, governor, and U.S. senator.

The victory of James Madison in 1789 shows that a strong candidate may overcome barriers erected by opponents. Still, current political reality in North Carolina points to the prospect that thousands of ballots cast by Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated voters will accumulate without influence in legislative districts designed with foregone conclusions. Free elections should mean an array of fair districts and competitive elections to reflect the will of voters.

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.