Professor Chris Nero Coughlin (JD ’90) publishes redistricting op/ed in News and Observer

Photo of Professor Christine Nero Coughlin (JD '90)

Professor Christine Nero Coughlin (JD ’90) and her research assistant, Adam Messenlehner, wrote the following op/ed, “Return NC to a democracy through fair redistricting,” that was published originally in the Raleigh News and Observer on Feb. 9, 2017.

For a democracy to have fair elections, the results need to reflect the will of the voters. This is essential to maintain credibility in the eyes of the citizens. In North Carolina, both Democrats and Republicans have engaged in redistricting during reapportionment in order to enrich their majorities, rather than create districts based upon geographic boundaries.Both parties used strategies such as “packing” together individuals to form a super-majority in a few districts, thus eliminating their electoral influence in the surrounding area, and “cracking,” or dividing a certain group of people who tend to vote a certain way across multiple districts despite geographic proximity, to reduce their electoral strength.Although North Carolinians recently voted for GOP control of the state legislature, the size of their majority is inconsistent with election results. In 2014, GOP state Senate candidates received 53.81 percent of the popular vote whereas the Democrats received 45.29 percent. However, those same votes gave the GOP a supermajority of 68 percent of the total state senate seats. Similarly, in the 2014 North Carolina house races GOP candidates received 54.12 percent of the popular vote, but won 62 percent of the chamber’s legislative seats. This wide discrepancy between the votes received and the seats won effectively stripped thousands of North Carolinians of their legislative vote.

Gerrymandering also resulted in fewer voting districts in which voters were able to choose between at least two viable candidates. In 2016, 76 out of 180 (45 percent) incumbent state legislators ran with no major party opposition. Voters in those districts effectively lost their vote and had to resign themselves to representation by someone they may not have supported. The lack of two viable options at the ballot box is not limited to districts with incumbents; the vast majority of North Carolina’s state House and Senate districts were classified as noncompetitive during the election cycle. Choice is a cornerstone of democracy; without viable alternatives, how can we hold our elected officials accountable for their actions?

This lack of choice is the direct result of North Carolina legislators controlling redistricting. Incumbent politicians have an incentive to create districts that are likely to reelect them or members of the same political party. As these districts become more favorable to one political party, moderates are replaced by ultra-partisans who can take uncompromising positions without fearing electoral accountability. Unfortunately, just like when the Democrats controlled the General Assembly, the current legislature’s increasingly partisan composition may make it difficult to end gerrymandering.

Obstacles, however, can create opportunities. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper has an opportunity to propose the creation of an independent, nonpartisan commission tasked with drawing congressional and legislative district lines every ten years. Implementation, however, requires legislators to support an idea that may jeopardize many of their reelection campaigns, limit their authority, and possibly upset the national balance of power. Republican legislators would also have to work with Cooper across party lines, which seems unlikely given the ongoing court battle relating to the General Assembly’s legislation limiting the Governor’s authority.

Nevertheless, North Carolinians must show their elected representatives that rejecting the creation of an independent commission would directly conflict with voters’ preferences. In fact, according to a recent survey released by Public Policy Polling, 59 percent of North Carolina voters support drawing district lines in a nonpartisan fashion. The survey found that bipartisan consensus also exists on the issue. Democrats supported the independent commission by a 59/14 margin, Independents did so overwhelmingly by a 69/14 margin, and even Republicans did so 49/17.

North Carolina legislators’ mandate should be to place the interests of citizens ahead of ultra-partisan politics. One way we, as citizens, can promote this ideal is to write our legislators and ask them to pledge their support for nonpartisan redistricting and the creation of an independent redistricting commission. If legislators refuse, North Carolina voters should band together to vote self-interested members out of office before reapportionment in 2020. Standing up to these partisan tactics by calling our elected officials’ offices and later voting out the ultra-partisans during the next election cycle should remind politicians that fundamental concepts of democracy and the people need to come first. If voters are willing to set aside partisanship in the interest of fair representation for all North Carolinians, why should we accept less from our legislators?

Christine Coughlin is a professor and the director of the legal analysis, writing, and research program at Wake Forest University School of Law. Adam Messenlehner is a research assistant to Coughlin at Wake Forest.