Senate chamger, NC State Capitol  Photo courtesy of Commons
Senate chamber, NC State Capitol     Photo courtesy of

Gerrymandering creates partisan environment that’s not conducive to compromise

By Bob Phillips

It may be the off-season for Ocracoke but in Raleigh things are about to get very busy.

The North Carolina General Assembly convenes in mid-January and lawmakers, including Rep. Paul Tine and Senator Bill Cook, who represent Hyde County, will arrive in the capitol city for a legislative session that will likely stretch well into the summer months.

It’s a little known fact outside of Raleigh, but the North Carolina legislature arguably makes more decisions that have greater impact on our lives than any other elective body.

If you care about the funding of Ocracoke’s school, the future of the NCCAT program, the maintenance of Highway 12, the possible tolling of the Hatteras ferry and whether offshore drilling should be rejected or approved, then you should know the North Carolina state legislature will be the body making those decisions.

The hope, of course, is that decisions on these issues and all others will all be made carefully and thoughtfully, but don’t hold your breath.

The overwhelming majority of state lawmakers arrive to Raleigh with the best of intentions, yet the environment they face doesn’t often lend itself to compromise much less civility.

A big reason for that is gerrymandering–a word that describes how the state’s congressional and legislative districts are drawn to the advantage of the political party in power.  Basically, lawmakers in the majority party get to draw their own districts.  They choose their own voters rather than the other way around.

Democrats did it when they were in charge; Republicans did it when they took over in 2010.  So in North Carolina, the overwhelming majority of legislative and congressional districts are non-competitive.   In fact, last year nearly half of the 170 state legislative candidates ran uncontested, meaning they had no opponent.  Of those with competition, more than 90 percent won their races by double-digit margins.

The good news for Hyde County is that Tine’s and Cook’s contests were the exception–both races were competitively decided by single-digit margins.   But across the state, most state legislators breezed into office only having to appeal to the base of their own political party.

That leaves the middle–where most North Carolinians are unrepresented.  Lawmakers who only have to cater to their party’s base have no inclination to reach across the aisle  to find common ground. They hardly have to worry about being held accountable to the voters, or be concerned with scrutiny from the media.

It all creates a bitter, toxic, partisan environment where  big decisions are not always made with great care and thought.

But lawmakers can take action this year to improve our democracy.  They can opt to give up their power to draw their own districts. They can pass legislation to have a citizens commission, or a non-partisan panel draw the district maps guided by firm rules that take the politics our of the process.

Other states do it with success, and the good news is there’s bi-partisan support to try this in North Carolina.  It’s a concept that is in the interest of both political parties.

The reason is simple: no party in North Carolina will hold power forever.  Our state is rapidly changing, diversifying becoming more urban and less rural. Think about how Ocracoke is changing. The political pendulum swings back and forth more frequently. True redistricting reform will at least guarantee that both political parties have a voice in our democracy, which is how it should be since our state is truly one of the most politically competitive states in the nation.

Ending gerrymandering will improve our democracy in Raleigh and Washington as the folks in elective office make those big decisions that impact our lives.

Let Rep. Tine and Senator Cook know you want them to support redistricting reform this year in Raleigh.


Bob PhillipsBob Phillips is executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, based in Raleigh. He and his wife, Kathy, have a home on Ocracoke.

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