Trapped in a Gerrymander: Growing up in North Carolina Congressional District 4
By Naomi Truax
I was raised to believe in the importance of voting.
From my parents and school community, I received an early introduction to civics that motivated me to become involved with local campaign organizing. In high school, I organized volunteers to help hundreds of my fellow North Carolinians register to vote before I myself was of voting age. Last November, during my sophomore year in college, I continued this work, canvassing in rural communities and badgering my fellow students to send in their absentee ballots. Even if the student was positive that there were no contentious down ballot races, I persisted: Voting is your right, your civic duty, and a good habit — so just do it.
Yet, when I brought my own absentee ballot to the college postmaster, I already knew who my state representative would be. Not only this, I could predict with certainty the election results in every other district. My conviction that our democracy is worthy of esteem faltered in that moment.
These uncompetitive elections were not a fluke. In 2010, after decades of Democratic control, the Republicans took control of the state legislature. This election coincided with the decennial U.S. Census, allowing the new voting districts to favor the political ends of the new Republican majority. In 2011, my state was gerrymandered so effectively that Congressional elections have become essentially predetermined.
This is no dark secret. Just the opposite: the leadership of the Republican Party made their intentions perfectly clear. State Rep. David Lewis, for example, proposed to “draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats” because he didn’t think it’d be “possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” The maps were drawn and performed exactly as Rep. Lewis intended.
Gerrymandering has been common practice within both parties since 1812, but the high confidence in outcome that Rep. Lewis displayed is new. The precision of line drawing has dramatically increased since the 1990s. According to Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, “technology has gotten a lot more sophisticated, and it’s enabled map drawers to draw much more durable gerrymanders than they have in the past. That’s because state mapmakers now know a lot more about voters.” In the 2011 map-drawing process, even local precincts (once the smallest units of election districting) were divided to ensure maximum partisan advantage. Access to widely available metadata gave mapmakers the ability to distinguish political orientation on a street-block level.
While the results of this strategically targeted line drawing were not immediately evident, The Atlantic notes that “over the course of three elections since redistricting, North Carolina’s seats in Congress shifted from a 7–6 Democratic advantage to a 10–3 Republican advantage*;” a shocking partisan shift. Moreover, this distribution is unrepresentative of the statewide vote totals which show Republicans receiving 50% of the vote and 76% of the seats. These numbers reflect the effects of gerrymandering.
One of the main ways to skew the maps is through “packing.” By concentrating like-minded Democratic voters, conservative lawmakers take liberal votes out of the surrounding districts. This process improves the odds for Republican victories. Republicans did this to my district.
David Price, the representative for whom I cast my vote, has held his office for 22 years. During that time his seat has remained reliably Democratic, but his margin of victory has dramatically increased. In 2010, David Price won 56% of the vote in NC 4. Following the 2011 redistricting conducted by the brand new Republican legislature, the median age of my district’s voting population dropped 4% and the African-American population increased by almost two-fold. The following year, in 2012, Price won again; this time with 75% of the vote. This trend has continued in the elections since. In 2018, Price won by about 50 percentage points.
The feeling of casting an empty vote (as I knowingly did) is dangerous to our democracy. While I wanted to vote for David Price, my recognition of non-competitive districts could easily have deterred me from going through the overly complicated process of casting an absentee ballot. This knowledge has concerning potential to create widespread disenfranchisement and voter alienation — if you know that your vote isn’t going to make a difference one way or another, then why bother going to the polls?
Although gerrymandering is a longstanding practice, our current maps have been stretched to the outermost limits of constitutionality and in some cases beyond. As such, multiple court cases challenging hyper-partisan gerrymandering and racially influenced maps have been bouncing around the state and federal courts for the past four years in an attempt to resolve the question of whether these practices remain constitutionally protected.
On Thursday morning, the Supreme Court settled the question for congressional maps, ruling that partisan gerrymandering is non-justiciable in federal courts. The case, Rucho v. Common Cause, emerged from North Carolina, but the implications reach far beyond state lines. This ruling was a huge setback in the fight for fair maps across the country. By stating that partisan gerrymandering is beyond the jurisdiction of federal courts, the Supreme Court ensured that partisan gerrymandering will occur in 2020 just as it did in 2010. I shudder to imagine what those maps might look like if we sit by and let our representatives hand pick their constituents with even fewer restraints.
In the midst of disappointment and outrage, we must push forward. With federal litigation off the table, our only path to mending our maps is mobilization. In a press release from the Campaign Legal Center, Paul Smith, the vice-president and a lead counsel in Rucho v. League of Women Voters NC, stated: “We must redouble our efforts outside the courtroom to keep advancing efforts that put the voices of voters first. Independent citizen-led commissions, such as those passed in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah in 2018, have been highly successful in ensuring that district maps fairly represent the population.” This is one of many ways that we can begin building up legitimate challenges to gerrymandering on the state level. The court ruled that silencing our votes was constitutional, but that does not mean the fight is over. Our work is cut out for us and there can be no delay.
*Post-election the number of Republican held seats dropped to nine after election fraud allegations. A special election for the 9th district will be held in September.
Naomi Truax is an Equal Citizens Fellow and rising junior at Amherst College.