Citizen Green: Democracy is not guaranteed

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Tom Ross, Henry Frye Jr. and Rhoda Billings prepare to speak at UNCG.

About a year ago the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly redrew the congressional district map after the courts ruled that two existing districts were impermissible racial gerrymanders.

At that time I wrote that the new map was both more racially fair and more politically competitive. The logic is that by unpacking black voters — who reliably favor Democratic candidates — the adjacent Republican-leaning districts would become more competitive.

In a purely technical sense, my analysis was correct. But in actuality, rebalancing barely put a dent in the Republican advantage. The most competitive 2016 congressional race, in the 13th District, saw Republican Ted Budd defeat Democrat Bruce Davis by 12.2 points — a slight improvement over the 14.6-point gap in the old 13th District race in 2014. The Republican mapmakers declared their intention to draw a map that would ensure a 10-3 majority in the delegation, and that’s exactly what the 2016 election delivered.   

Progressive people concentrated in North Carolina’s cities might conclude from that split that they are grossly outnumbered, but of course we know that our state is closely divided.

An analysis last month by the nonprofit advocacy group Common Cause North Carolina found by averaging votes in the races for president, US Senate, governor, lieutenant governor and Council of State offices that voter preference broke down as 51 percent in favor of Republican candidates and 48 percent in support of Democratic candidates. Yet Republicans won 77 percent of the US House seats, 72 percent of state Senate seats and 75 percent of state House seats. Common Cause categorized only 12 out of 120 state House races as competitive — that is, won by a margin of less than 10 percent — while only four out of 50 state Senate races were competitive. What that means is that only 10 percent of state House voters, 8 percent of state Senate voters, and no US House voters really had a choice in selecting a candidate.

A recent report by the University of Sydney-based Electoral Integrity Project placed North Carolina in the bottom third of the 50 states and Washington DC on its Perceptions of Electoral Integrity index with a dismal score of 58 out of 100. Compared with a global index released about six months earlier, that places North Carolina just below India and Colombia, and slightly better than Ghana, Moldova and Mexico. The global experts who performed the recent state elections review evaluated a number of areas, including electoral procedures, voter registration, media coverage, campaign finance and vote count. North Carolina bombed in district boundaries, with a score of 7 — the absolute lowest in the country, with Wisconsin (8), Ohio (10) and Pennsylvania (11) closely trailing.

Let’s take a hard look at this: If only one in 10 North Carolina voters holds a choice in selecting their state House representative and only one in eight have a say over who represents them in the state Senate, that’s not democracy. State legislators who are virtually guaranteed re-election have little incentive to listen to their constituents. It should come as little surprise that state lawmakers have displayed such indifference to the popular outrage over bills like HB 2 and the recent special session called to rip power away from the new Democratic governor. Gerrymandering has perverted the political process so that state lawmakers no longer serve the people, but instead use the levers of government to accumulate greater concentrations of power.

It’s true that Democrats refined partisan gerrymandering to an art when they held power in Raleigh, but the 7-6 split they engineered in the congressional delegation at least indicates that the system more closely reflected the will of the voters. Republican lawmakers might be tempted to write off complaints about gerrymandering as the hypocrisy of an offender getting a proper comeuppance. But they should be careful that their arrogance doesn’t inspire an electoral revolt at the ballot box.

Tom Ross, the former president of the University of North Carolina system, has been arguing that moving to a nonpartisan redistricting system “may be one of the most important changes we can make” to save democracy.

“That sounds melodramatic to some people, but you know democracy is not a guaranteed form of government by any stretch of the imagination,” he told an overflow crowd in a 450-capacity amphitheater at UNCG on Jan. 26. “It has been resilient in the United States, and helped us bounce back from some very difficult times. We’ve had difficult times around wars, particularly the Civil War. We’ve had difficult times around the impeachment of presidents and other instances where democracy has been tested. But it has stood the test. But there’s no guarantee it always will.

“Part of what allowed it to stand the test historically is people who were willing to stand up and fight for democracy, fight for what was right,” Ross continued, prompting an eruption of applause. “And I think we’re at a point right now where our political system is so broken that if we’re not prepared to stand up for our democracy and what’s right, we could lose it.”