In North Carolina, the institutionalized nature of the modern and historical disenfranchisement of people of color means that the only way to comprehensively defeat the issue of racial gerrymandering is to perform a complete systemic overhaul. A practice which patently reflects these racial biases is racial gerrymandering which has reinforced a majoritarian monopoly on political representation since the 18th century. The most effective reform that North Carolina could adopt to end this inequality is a variant of the Mixed-Member Proportional representation used in countries like New Zealand, which is proportional to candidate and party support. To empower independent voters rather than party committees, balanced Citizens Ranking Commissions including five affiliated and four unaffiliated voters (modeled after California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission) would be created to rank party lists. Though ambitious, negating the importance of district lines in the electorate process would not only provide equal representation but also include independent votes in eliminating the existence of a ‘wasted vote.’
History & Litigation
It is no secret that the United States was built upon a foundation of prejudice and inequality toward people of color and other marginalized groups. North Carolina in particular reflects that deeply-rooted bias in both its past and persisting culture of disenfranchisement. Racial gerrymandering in North Carolina is not only present but aggressive in shaping state institutions by reinforcing the General Assembly members’ meticulous control over which groups of people are systematically privileged. Strasberg 2 North Carolina has a long history of conflict in regard to racially gerrymandered districts. In the 1992 majority opinion for Shaw v. Reno, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor described the boundaries for North Carolina’s 12th district as “egregious racial [gerrymandering… bearing] an uncomfortable resemblence to political apartheid” (O’Connor 647). More recently, maps from 2011 and 2017 have been struck down on the basis of unconstitutional racial bias; in Common Cause v. Rucho (2019), the Court ruled that they “could not set a constitutional standard against partisan gerrymandering,” allowing lawmakers to leverage partisanship as a vehicle for cracking and packing (“Fourteenth Amendment” 303). The impact of this manipulation is severe; racially gerrymandered districts have caused North Carolina’s state government to fall under minority rule. In 2018, Republicans received <50% of votes, yet now control 58% of state Senate seats and 54% of state House seats (Nilsen and Golshan). The disparity can be attributed in large part to the fact that candidates of color struggle to be elected in gerrymandered white-majority districts (Ingalls 60). The Republican members of the General Assembly (and the Democratic majority who preceded them) understand this principle, allowing them to manufacture disproportionately white and Republican districts. With this report, the problem I seek to address is racial gerrymandering in North Carolina. I propose that it should adopt a modified version of Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) representation and create Citizens Ranking Commissions for each majority party to be responsible for ranking party lists; this reform would eliminate the need for districts and give independent voters a voice commensurate to their size as a demographic. Although there are a number of less drastic reforms that North Carolina could implement before turning to MMP, I do not believe that any electoral process which was created against the backdrop of human enslavement could ever rid itself of its intrinsic propensity for oppression.
Mixed-Member Proportional Representation
MMP representation is the system of election used in countries including New Zealand and Germany (Yglesias). MMP is “mixed” because there are two different avenues through which Strasberg 3 representatives can be elected: “single-member plurality” (SMP) and “party lists” (Lundberg 612). Essentially, when members vote, they choose their candidate and their preferred political party. The candidates with the most votes win seats. The remaining seats are split between the majority parties to be assigned from the ranked party lists. The number of seats each party gets is proportional to the percentage of voters who voted for them (Thames 910). By guaranteeing a proportional outcome regardless of district boundaries, such a reform would negate the importance of district lines altogether. The margin of victory would be significant (unlike in the current winner-takes-all method), putting an end to ‘wasted votes’ and forcing parties to appeal to a broader base, likely catalyzing a shift away from extreme partisanship (Yglesias). Moreover, studies of countries using MMP indicate that it has had a positive political effect. New Zealand adopted MMP in 1996 as a replacement for exclusive SMP. There, MMP’s advantages are seen to be its incorporation of SMP and proportionality, and its inclusion of independent voters and minority groups. Its disadvantages are that it may confuse voters, as well as that it tends to favor incumbents and party leaders (Karp 41). While these concerns are legitimate, a study from the University of Exeter ultimately concluded that their impact “appears to be quite small” (46). Additionally, incumbent privilege is a rampant issue in North Carolina already due to incumbent protection of gerrymandering and general immutable advantages to name-recognition; the net effect of MMP would likely be an overall reduction in this advantage with the devaluation of district boundaries. Concerning opacity, 43% of American students surveyed by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute did not know what the electoral college was; although MMP is not an elementary concept, no system could effectively function without intricacies accounting for the many complexities of the nation that it is governing (Shenkman 21).
Citizens Ranking Commissions
To address the concern of a vulnerable party list, the modification that I propose for MMP is to take away the responsibility of ranking party lists from state and national party committees. Such power would Strasberg 4 be a magnet for corruption and would disempower voters should the interests of party leaders diverge from those of their constituents. In the same way that state legislators cannot be tasked with drawing their own party lines, party committees cannot be tasked with ranking their own party lists. I suggest creating Citizens Ranking Commissions for each majority party on the ballot chosen using similar requirements to those of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. In California, each major party gets five eligible registered voters who sit with four eligible unaffiliated voters (Reyes 658). In modifying for MMP, five voters registered with the relevant party and 4 unaffiliated voters for each Ranking Commission appears fair to both partisan and independent voters. Although this plan appears to favor independent representation, the North Carolina State Board of Elections––perhaps surprisingly––reports that the second largest group of voters behind Democrats is ‘Unaffiliated.’
Feasibility in North Carolina
The first challenge facing this radical systemic reform is that in Rucho v. Common Cause, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan (and indelibly racial) gerrymandering falls outside of its purview. This ruling leaves the issue to politicians like the appellants in Rucho. Among them is the Chairman of the North Carolina Senate Redistricting Committee Robert A. Rucho, House Speaker Tim Moore (R), and Senate President Phil Berger (R). Common Cause, the Appellee, notes that Moore and Berger––two loud proponents of partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina––once co-sponsored a redistricting reform bill in 2009, Senate Bill 25. Their opinions shifted parallel to the emergence of Republican supremacy within the state legislature, indicating that their support of gerrymandering is purely self-serving (Phillips). Realistically, rejecting gerrymandering today would be very difficult without support from the Court, and reform this substantial would only be feasible if ideological affiliations on the bench shift left. Should a future Supreme Court rule that gerrymandering is a Constitutional violation, then implementing redistricting reform encompassing both MMP Representation and Citizens Ranking Commissions could Strasberg 5 potentially become more plausible. Until then, there is little incentive for the leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly to surrender any control over redistricting or noncompetitive paths toward reelection
“Common Cause v. Lewis.” Common Cause North Carolina, https://www.commoncause.org/north-carolina/resource/common-cause-v-lewis
“Fourteenth Amendment – Equal Protection Clause – Racial Gerrymandering – Cooper V. Harris. (The Supreme Court: 2016 Term) (Case Note).” Harvard Law Review, vol. 131, no. 1, Harvard Law Review Association, Nov. 2017, pp. 303–12.
Ingalls, Gerald, and Moore, Toby. “The Present and Future of Racial Gerrymandering: Eviden from North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District.” Southeastern Geographer, vol. 35, no. 1, Southeastern Division, Association of American Geographers, May 1995, pp. 58–74, doi:10.1353/sgo.1995.0009.
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Nilsen, Ella, and Tara Golshan. “A North Carolina Court Just Threw out Republicans’ Gerrymandered State Legislature Map.” Vox, Vox, 3 Sept. 2019, https://www.vox.com/ policy-and-politics/2019/9/3/20848087/north-carolina-court-republican-gerrymander-state-legisla ture-map.
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