By Bob Phillips
Your state lawmakers working in Raleigh this legislative session have one main task and that is to write and adopt a state budget which technically must be approved by July 1, the end of the fiscal year.
But on the way to passing a budget, hundreds of other legislative proposals get tossed into the hopper including new rules for local elections.
One of the most controversial proposals is in Wake County, the state’s second largest county and home to Raleigh.
A proposed new law changes Wake county commissioner elections from at-large contests to districts races. Up to now, Wake has been electing its commissioners county-wide just like Hyde County does.
The controversy in Wake County is that Democrats swept Republicans out of office in the Wake Commissioner races in 2014.
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 to 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 out 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.
However, the new district plan assures that Republicans regain control in future elections.
What about Hyde County? Would commissioner district races make sense? A district plan could potentially assure that Ocracoke residents always have a representative on the county board.
For now there are no signs that the local legislative delegation is considering such a proposal. Hyde County lawmakers split on the Wake County proposal with Rep. Paul Tine opposing and Senator Bill Cook supporting.
Let Tine and Cook know you want them to support redistricting reform this year in Raleigh.
Executive director, Common Cause North Carolina