Replacing 'winner-takes-all' system would end gerrymandering

Replacing 'winner-takes-all' system would end gerrymandering
© Getty

Many North Carolina congressional candidates — even some incumbents — haven’t announced their plans yet, and Election Day remains 11 months away. But there’s one thing you probably can set your clock by: North Carolina’s congressional delegation after 2020 will contain eight Republicans and five Democrats.

A majority of voters could back Democratic candidates, but the party nevertheless is certain to earn less than 40 percent of the seats. Republicans could win a big red wave; they’ll hold no more than those eight, even with a landslide. Incumbents will coast, with no accountability in the general election.

That’s because a panel of North Carolina judges recently upheld the use of a controversial new congressional map, drawn and approved by the state’s Republican legislators in response to an October ruling by the same court that warned the state’s previous map had a “substantial likelihood” of being thrown out as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. 

ADVERTISEMENT

This was not the outcome that the citizens who brought this case wanted. They argued that the legislature merely substituted a slightly-less gerrymandered map for the radically gerrymandered one that the court threatened to invalidate. They asked for an independent “special master” — without ties to either party — to draw new lines instead. 

The court, however, without blessing the new map’s fairness or constitutionality, said that there simply wasn’t time to hear such a complicated case and still hold the scheduled congressional primaries in March. These maps were not as bad as the old maps, so the court declared victory and went home: Slightly-less gerrymandered will have to do. 

This shouldn’t be so hard. It shouldn’t take so long. Slightly-less gerrymandered shouldn’t be an acceptable standard for the people’s house. And the entire, decade-long battle in North Carolina is a good argument for why we should completely change the way we district. It’s time for not just fair maps but fair representation.

Think of it this way: Yes, the new map represents a small win for Democrats, who will, in all likelihood, pick up two congressional seats next fall. If so, these seats will be the Democrats’ first flips in this purple state since Republicans redistricted after the 2010 census, and will end a 10-3 edge that has held Democrats to less than a quarter of the seats, even when they win a majority of the votes. Those two seats will make it that much easier for Democrats to hold the U.S. House next fall.

But it’s not much of a victory at all for North Carolina voters who care more about genuine choices, competitive elections and the ability to hold lawmakers accountable. It simply replaces a locked-in, 10-3 map with a locked-in, 8-5 edge instead. 

ADVERTISEMENT

All of North Carolina’s districts remain safely under the control of one party or the other. Democrats are packed into five noncompetitive districts. Republicans dominate the other eight. All the action will remain in low-turnout party primaries. No outcomes will be in question. No votes will truly matter. According to a study by Jowei Chen of the University of Michigan, which compared the new map against 1,000 neutral maps drawn by a computer, at least 10 of the 13 districts are “extreme partisan outliers.” In those 10 districts, the map drawn by politicians was more partisan than the entire set of neutral maps more than 94 percent of the time. 

This is the problem with single-member, winner-take-all districts, especially those crafted by partisans. Instead of giving North Carolinians an incrementally fairer map, they should be given a fair vote. That wasn’t the case with the old maps. It’s not the case now. 

It’s time for a truly comprehensive, forward-looking solution that generates fair outcomes but also provides voters with meaningful choices and produces politicians who look to represent everyone. 

We defeat the gerrymander not by tinkering around the edges, but by solving the root problem. If we want to cure redistricting, it’s clear that we must start by taking on districting itself. This means thinking differently about the problem and also the solution: Reimagining our crisis of democracy as a crisis of winner-takes-all democracy — the kind that creates safe seats for parties, but leaves voters without thoughtful alternatives. 

After all, these districts should not belong to parties as the exclusive property of Team Red or Team Blue. A bill before Congress would solve this fairness issue in North Carolina and fundamentally render gerrymandering irrelevant at a time when courts either refuse to get involved or, as in this case, believe that such a large problem would take far too long to solve.

Congress could simply pass the Fair Representation Act, as proposed by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). Beyer would replace our winner-takes-all system with a fairer system that would allow every vote to matter and everyone to win their fair share of seats. It calls for ranked choice voting to elect House members, combined with moderately larger districts of three, four or five representatives (drawn by nonpartisan commissions) along the lines of ones used widely in state and local elections. Together, these two reforms would ensure that all sides win only the seats they deserve in every state. 

But it goes further. The beauty of this approach is that, across North Carolina and every other state, these larger districts would produce Democrats, Republicans and even independents. Every district would have actual swing seats. Women and candidates of color would have a better chance of winning. No one would feel as if their voice did not count. And no voter — not even a Republican in Massachusetts or a Democrat in Nebraska — would be locked into a district where the outcome is predetermined. 

It’s December 2019 and North Carolinians have been fighting about their maps for a decade. The maps have been declared racial and partisan gerrymanders, invalidated multiple times, and they have generated millions of dollars in court costs. Republicans would say that the gerrymandering problem goes back even further, pointing to the many maps Democrats drew prior to 2011 to advantage themselves. Let’s stop arguing about where the individual lines go, how many seats each party ought to be handed, and think instead about how we guarantee that all citizens get  representation they deserve.

If we want to fix that fundamental problem, and lessen the extremism and dysfunction it helps to sow, we must think bigger and far beyond the zero-sum partisan game. This reform moment, and this frustrating example from North Carolina, could be an inspiration to start.

David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count" (Norton). Follow him on Twitter @davedaley3.