Gerrymandered districts and polarized voters

Scott Mooneyham
The Mt. Airy News
August 2, 2010

"The fact is that in too many districts today, people's vote really probably won't make a difference." Those comments, made in 2006, came from then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.

Obama was discussing congressional and legislative redistricting, the redrawing of electoral district lines that comes every 10 years following a new U.S. census. At the time, he cited the efforts of a Republican, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to reform the redistricting process in his state.

Schwarenegger was ultimately successful. When elections are held in 2012 in California, an independent redistricting commission - and not state legislators - will have drawn the lines.

California will have joined about a dozen other states that no longer allow legislators to determine their own districts and legislative majorities to gerrymander their way into keeping their majorities. Presumably, their congressional and legislative districts will no longer look like the bug splatter on windshields that many districts in North Carolina resemble.

For North Carolina, the chance to avoid another decade of bug splatterlike districts has probably passed. Legislators and legislative candidates are gearing up for all-important decade-ending election that will determine who wins the right to draw the lines likely to stand for the next 10 years.

If you believe the current system doesn't undermine the democratic process, consider this: Right now in Washington, Democratic and Republican operatives are raising money and studying maps for the sole purpose of influencing how districts are drawn in the individual states.

Some creature of Washington may have more influence in who you vote for in 2012 than anyone from North Carolina.

With today's technology and computer-assisted map making, these folks know about you and your neighbors' voting habits - based on your postal zip code - and exactly how to create safe districts to ensure an incumbent's re-election.

Candidates choosing their voters is bad enough.

A growing amount of academic research suggests this high-tech electoral gerrymandering contributes greatly to political polarization.

Piling liberals into one district and conservatives into another to create safe districts means elections are decided in primaries. Primary voters, on the whole, are typically more extreme than general election voters.

The result: more extreme candidates are elected; moderate voters have less voice.

Some researchers say the polarization doesn't stop there. With fewer moderates elected, political debate becomes more extreme.

Moderate voters choose sides and become more radicalized by the process.

For two decades, Republicans in the state House have introduced bills to let North Carolina voters decided whether the line-drawing should be done by an independent redistricting commission. In the state Senate, the late Ham Horton, a Republican, and Democratic Sen. Ellie Kinnaird used to team up to file a similar bill.

It's worth noting that, in the mid-1990s, when Republicans enjoyed a majority in the House, they never act on their bill.

Power can have that effect.

When you've got it, why not stick it to the other guy? One answer, as the Republicans saw, is that the tables can turn. Another is that everyone can be debased in the process.