Duke University and the advocacy group Common Cause recently ran a fascinating experiment.
They assembled a panel of 10 retired state judges and Supreme Court justices, five Republicans, five Democrats. Then they asked them, just as an exercise, to draw up hypothetical boundaries for North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House districts.
Their Honors were charged with coming up with districts that were more or less equal in population, compact, followed city and county lines and divided up as few counties as possible.
Well, the resulting map is a wonder of common sense. It could actually work.
Unfortunately, in the world as it is, it has no chance of ever being enacted.
See, the judges deliberately ignored political party strength – which is what state legislators, who draw up congressional and legislative districts for real, pay very close attention to.
Given the wonder of computers, political advisers can predict how local precincts will vote with near certainty. In the past few years, the professional politicians who run the General Assembly have been using this knowledge to tailor districts to favor incumbents and particular political parties.
North Carolina, for instance, is a closely divided “purple” state. Added all together, the state’s votes for U.S. House members skew about 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.
By carefully crafting boundaries – for example, by cramming minorities and other Democrat-leaning voters into as few districts as possible – the Republican legislature has left the state with a delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives that consists of 10 Republicans and three Democrats.
And make no mistake, Democrats did much the same thing when they ran the legislature, creating bizarre-shaped districts. We criticized the gerrymandering then, too.
North Carolina’s congressional districts are a national joke, the envy of Chicago machine pols. The current 12th District runs from Charlotte to the Virginia line, often no more than a couple of miles wide. Until recently – before federal judges ordered our legislature back to the drawing board – a kind of tentacle ran down from the 3rd District, which is mostly concentrated in the northeast part of the state, and grabbed several precincts in Wilmington. Unless you’re a politico, it made no sense.
Legislative leaders have regarded the judges’ simulation, well, as the equivalent of a bag of burning poo left on their doorstep. But this project offers some hope, and a possible solution.
For years, some people (such as Common Cause) have lobbied hard to stop politicians from drawing the very the districts they run in. They’ve suggested the job should be left to some independent, non-partisan board, the way it’s done in other democracies around the world.
Hmmm … Maybe that panel could be made up of distinguished, retired judges and justices. Our legislature could certainly do worse. After all, they already have.
— The Wilmington Star-News