At the height of a conference in early March at Duke University, more than a hundred people were packed into two rooms listening to speakers talk about computer modeling, brand messaging, and how to achieve political victory.
The topic, however, was not one of the perennial hot-button issues, but something that until recently was considered a dry subject that came up only about once a decade: political redistricting.
Now of course the fight over drawing legislative districts is one of the key political battlegrounds in North Carolina. Critics of the process say there are ways to draw fairer, nonpartisan maps, and the March conference shows that a range of groups is pushing hard for such a process.
But is there really a good way of erasing politics from drawing legislative districts? Or is that indeed an inherently political process, which should in fact be left in the hands of elected representatives of the people?
Conference highlights push for redistricting
On March 1, a coalition of liberal groups – plus one closer to the Right of the spectrum – brought an engaged group of activists to the North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh to protest the current model of having the legislature draw its own district lines following each census.
To outside observers, however, this “lobby day” itself looked just like similar efforts put forward by partisan groups to advance their agendas. That raises the issue of how nonpartisan the effort is.
The following day, a crowd of lawyers, activists, and Duke University political science students packed two rooms at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy. They discussed ways to change how election districts are created, and how to engage people outside of the building in the process. The event featured speakers from across the country, including attorneys and university professors.
Common Cause, in conjunction with the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy and the Campaign Legal Center, organized the event. Dan Vicuna, the national redistricting manager for Common Cause, said the conference was much bigger this year than in past years, possibly due to the 2016 election.
“I think everything is going really well. It’s amazing to see the academics, young people, attorneys, activists from around the country who have come in to develop a reform community,” he said. “It’s been a really robust exchange of ideas, it’s really inspiring. We actually planned to have our entire conference in one room because that’s been the history.”
The group had to expand the conference twice, doubling up on each session.
Across the country, similar events have drawn more interest than usual. “It’s been really a pleasant surprise,” he said.
Groups represented by the speakers included representatives from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Blueprint NC, the NAACP Voter Fund, and many liberal organizations. Common Cause is a nonprofit organization with the stated goal of promoting open, accountable government. However, Common Cause is a member of four powerful liberal/progressive political networks in the state: the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Blueprint NC, Democracy NC, and Together NC Partner Coalition. Most of Common Cause’s national grant money comes from left-wing foundations such as George Soros’ Open Society, Proteus, Tides, and Z. Smith Reynolds.
The conference covered a range of topics, including other redistricting options that may improve upon the current system. But do other ways of drawing election maps actually provide better options?
California’s ‘independent’ redistricting commission
The quest for nonpartisan redistricting is based on the assumption that people outside of public office can implement a district-drawing process that is fairer and less involved in politics than having the state legislature draw the election maps.
NC Capitol Connection decided it would be worthwhile to examine vote totals in key states that have gone to great lengths to create supposedly nonpartisan redistricting commissions.
To measure the “fairness” of the nonpartisan maps, vote totals for Republican and Democratic congressional candidates in the states were compared with the distribution of the state’s actual congressional seats, beginning with California. Looking at the overall statewide congressional voting and comparing it with the actual congressional election results can serve as a window into how effective the process is at keeping redistricting from becoming a political process.
Congressional seats were chosen for this article, as that provided a clearer overall picture.
Common Cause holds up states like California, which has an independent commission complete its redistricting after each census, as one of the best examples of states that have traveled down the path many want North Carolina to follow. But how independent is California’s independent commission?
Before the most recent redistricting, Californians approved a pair of propositions that created a 14-person commission made up of people from both major political parties as well as representatives not affiliated with a party.
According to the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures, “The commission must include five Democrats, five Republicans, and five members from neither party. [State] auditors are to select 60 registered voters from an applicant pool. Legislative leaders can reduce the pool; the auditors then are to pick eight commission members by lottery, and those commissioners pick six additional members for 14 total. For approval, district boundaries need votes from three Democratic commissioners, three Republican commissioners, and three commissioners from neither party.”
But does this process eliminate the machinations of party politics when compared with how the people of California actually vote? Here’s one way to analyze the voting.
In 2016, Democratic congressional candidates received 5.7 million votes to Republican candidates’ 4.1 million votes. But those numbers are misleading, because the total includes uncontested races in which voters from one party had no alternatives for which to vote. In other words, in uncontested races, voters of one party “ran up the score” without other voters having a chance to register their preferences.
In California, five congressional races were uncontested. Removing them means the vote totals were 4.1 million for Republicans and 4.7 million for Democrats. In other words, in contested races, Democrats received 54 percent of the total state vote to the Republicans’ 46 percent. In theory, nonpartisan redistricting should result in a similar split in the congressional delegation. But of California’s 52 congressional seats, in fact 38 are held by Democrats and only 14 by Republicans.
If these seats were allocated based on the overall percentages of votes in contested elections, the split would be much closer. Democrats would have 28 congressional seats and Republicans would have 24, a full 10-seat swing toward the Republicans.
This comparison suggests that California has significantly deviated from the split that should exist under a voting map that has no partisan bias.
Even under an analysis that included the uncontested races, the Republicans would have 22 seats instead of the 14 they actually control. Why didn’t the nonpartisan redistricting prevent such a wide split?
How Democrats gamed redistricting reform
The left-leaning nonprofit group ProPublica investigated the beginnings of California’s redistricting process in 2011, and it summed up its inquiry in an article headlined, “How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission.”
Democrat politicos met secretly and mapped out a strategy for getting districts they wanted, the article says. Special-interest groups ponied up money to help. Democrats and their allies created fake organizations – “astroturf” rather than grassroots – to push for maps favorable to Democrats. Lobbyists and other politically involved people posed as ordinary citizens in providing input to the commission.
“The citizens’ commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players,” ProPublica reported. “To get around that, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests. When they appeared before the commission, those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party.”
Moreover, one of the assumptions behind “nonpartisan” redistricting backfired. The whole idea is based on the notion that if politicians want to jigger the maps for their own interests, ordinary citizens will do a better job. In California, ProPublica reported, “The result was a commission that included, among others, a farmer, a homemaker, a sports doctor and an architect.”
But novices seldom have the experience and expertise of political pros. That left many commissioners at the mercy of those trying to manipulate the system. And the scheme seems to have worked.
“California’s Democratic representatives got much of what they wanted from the 2010 redistricting cycle, especially in the northern part of the state,” ProPublica reported. “ ‘Every member of the Northern California Democratic Caucus has a ticket back to DC,’ said one enthusiastic memo written as the process was winding down.”
How has the process played out over the years since? In 2010, before redistricting, California Democrats held 34 seats and Republicans held 19. As mentioned above, with the redistricting process in place, Democrats have increased their edge, holding 38 seats to the GOP’s 14.
If the Democratic Party schemed to co-opt the nonpartisan redistricting and increase its hold on California’s congressional delegation, the numbers say that effort was successful.
This, of course, is just one way of looking at one state, but it’s a revealing one.
Other states with nonpartisan redistricting fall short
It is not just California that has fallen short of the mark when it comes to fair redistricting, however. Here are three states with some form of nonpartisan redistricting in which the congressional districts seem at odds with overall statewide voting.
In Colorado’s seven congressional districts, four seats are held by Republicans and three by Democrats. But the overall voting in the state would put 3.22 districts in Republican hands and 3.77 with Democrats – closer to flipping the delegation to three Republicans and four Democrats.
In fact, in 2016, Republican congressional candidates received 1.17 million votes statewide to Democrats’ 1.38 million votes. Yet Republicans control a majority of seats.
In Pennsylvania, 13 of the 18 congressional districts are held by Republicans, and the remaining five are controlled by Democrats. But statewide Republicans only collected about 55 percent of the vote in contested elections. This analysis suggests that if districts more closely reflected the statewide vote, the GOP would win only about 10 of the available seats and the remaining eight would go to Democrats. Even without removing the uncontested races, the split would be the same.
In Ohio, the story is much the same, with Republicans actually winning 12 of the 16 districts although they only took 58 percent of the total congressional vote, or 9.3 districts worth.
Democrats would have presumably taken two more districts looking just at the way the state voting totals fell. Republican candidates collected just under 3 million votes compared with 2.15 million votes for Democrats.
Can redistricting really be nonpartisan?
It seems that a certain degree of politics will always be involved in redistricting, and that has been true in history. As New York Sen. William Marcy said in 1832, “To the victor belong the spoils.”
Or as North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger said a couple of years ago: “I have yet to see a so-called independent redistricting commission that is truly independent. … I’m still out there looking for that nonpartisan soul that really has no opinion about politics one way or the other that has an informational background in politics.”
Redistricting certainly doesn’t quell all concerns about drawing congressional districts. A telling statistic: Ballotpedia reported that 12 of the 13 states with independent redistricting commissions (at that time) were involved in lawsuits relating to the 2010 census. The drawing of legislative maps may be one of those activities in which it’s impossible to make everyone happy.
Were the lobby day and conference even nonpartisan?
A cautionary warning came from Mitch Kokai, who serves as communications director for the John Locke Foundation, the only organization involved that can’t be clearly identified as being on the Left. In March, he spoke at both the lobby day and at the conference and said he found the lobby day to be almost as partisan as the process the groups are trying to change.
“It’s important if this is going to be resolved by anything other than the courts that we bring along people that are not just of one ideological bend,” he said. “To be specific, we need people who are on the Left, on the Right, in the middle, people who don’t think much about either party or either of the well-known ideologies. So I think that the messaging does have to take account of more than just criticism of those ‘evil Republicans.’”
Kokai continued, referring to the rally specifically that took place the day before the conference got underway. “So if you’re going to have a message that appeals to all voters, it’s important not to create messages that are used to warm up political rallies,” he said. “Now I enjoy working with my friends from Common Cause North Carolina, but I can tell you that rally earlier this week came across to me like not much different than a Democratic Party rally, and I can tell you that very few of the folks that I know that are conservatives or Republicans would have had anything to do with that rally.”
That is indeed one of the big concerns of critics of nonpartisan redistricting: that the vast majority of people and groups calling for redistricting are left-leaning groups and academics or activists aligned with Democrats.
“I think that there is a difference between a partisan voter and a party activist,” Vicuna said of that idea. “We’ve seen that in the places that have been successful like California. California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters and AARP (Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons) fought for the change there. The Democrats were our biggest hurdle, and it was a very, very, blue state, but rank-and-file Democratic voters, however partisan they may be on the issues, still saw it as a basic fairness issue.”
The groups Vicuna cites are widely known to be liberal organizations that advocate for bigger government and are most often found acting in concert with the goals of the Democratic Party. While the California Democrat establishment fought the redistricting process when it was up for a vote, once the law passed, it seems Democrats quickly found ways to subvert it.
Which raises the question: Is trying to remove the influence of the parties actually fair?
Another view is that in our republic, the process of drawing legislative districts is properly part of the political process. If enough voters dislike what the majority party is doing, in drawing legislative maps or anything else, those citizens can go out every other November and vote for the opposing party.
“Call them what you will, but ‘independent,’ ‘nonpartisan’ or even ‘bipartisan’ commissions will never work for the simple fact that you can’t take politics out of politics. Redistricting is an inherently partisan process,” Civitas election policy analyst Susan Myrick has said. “Instead of shifting responsibility and accountability away from where it belongs, the redistricting process should be transparently implemented by the elected officials charged with that responsibility by our state’s Constitution.”
In North Carolina, Republicans took power in 2010, running in legislative districts drawn by Democrats after the 2000 census, which goes to show that an apparent disadvantage in the districts can be overcome if support for the minority party is enough to overcome the politically motivated maps.
In short, North Carolinians should be wary of these supposedly “nonpartisan” efforts to change redistricting processes. Somehow partisan politics often seem to filter back into the process, in ways that may be hard to see and oppose. Looking at how “nonpartisan” redistricting has been handled across the country so far, people should be skeptical of any plan to pull the politics out of creating political districts.