Cindi Ross Scoppe

Want a better Legislature? Start with better districts

NC voters rallied in March to protest the practice of legislators picking their own voters, through gerrymandering. Too bad SC voters aren’t upset by such antics.
NC voters rallied in March to protest the practice of legislators picking their own voters, through gerrymandering. Too bad SC voters aren’t upset by such antics. cliddy@newsobserver.com

FRACTIONS are pretty cool when you start dividing them by other fractions.

Say you’ve got a state where 60 percent of the voters reliably vote Republican and the other 40 percent vote Democratic. The law of averages tells us that if you divided this state into 100 legislative districts, 60 of the legislators would be Republican and 40 would be Democratic. And that’s what should happen. And it’s what could happen.

If the state were divided randomly.

Or even by disinterested parties.

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But if it wasn’t random, and if it wasn’t divided by disinterested parties, you could also have a legislature that is 100 percent Republican. Really: All you have to do is draw each district with 60 percent Republicans and 40 percent Democrats. Now, this is extreme gerrymandering, but it is mathematically if not cartiographically simple to achieve.

It’s also mathematically if not cartographically simple to give the minority Democrats overwhelming control of that legislature: Just make 20 of the districts 100 percent Republican, which uses up a lot of Republican voters, and make 10 districts 57 percent Republican, and you can make the other 70 districts 51 percent Democratic. (Yes, I know, you need at least 55 percent for a “safe” district, but I’m making a mathematical point here, not a political point.)

My point isn’t that anyone should draw districts either of those ways. My point is that it’s possible, and — here’s the bigger point — the more control one party has over the district-drawing process, the closer you get to that extreme extreme, and the further you get away from the idea that voters get to pick their representatives.

Which brings us to Senate Democratic Leader Nikki Setzler’s proposal to have an independent commission draw legislative districts every 10 years rather than continuing to let legislators do it.

I don’t expect our Republican legislators to go along with his idea — even though the first I ever heard of a redistricting commission was when Mr. Republican, then-state Sen. and now-U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, was pushing it; it was a good idea then, and it’s a good idea now. In addition to eroding Republican legislators’ partisan advantage, a commission would deprive legislators of both parties of the ability to draw their own districts. That is, it would deprive them of the ability to flip the entire theory of representative democracy on its head by personally picking their own voters.

But if mainstream Republicans thought past the next few elections, they would be racing to create a reapportionment commission, which would actually help Republicans — and our state — more than it would help Democrats.

Of course, it would help Democrats by making it possible to win something closer to the 45 percent of seats that you’d expect from their statewide support instead of the 36 percent they now have in the House. But they’ll never win a majority in the Legislature unless they become a voting majority statewide. And creating a commission would help Republicans by making it harder for extreme right-wing candidates to win Republican primaries in Republican-majority districts. It would help our state by doing that and by accomplishing the corresponding miracle in the Democratic Party — which is the textbook definition of how you create a legislature more focused on doing the work the majority of the voters want done.

Independent commissions draw legislative districts in 13 states, and advisory commissions propose them in another seven, at least theoretically putting pressure on those legislatures to approve similar plans.

Those commissions are less interested than legislatures are in drawing districts that are so overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic that there’s no reason for voters to show up for the November election. (In South Carolina, there’s no contested race at all, never mind competitive, in three-quarters of the legislative districts.) And when there’s a competitive race in November, the more extreme candidate tends to lose. Over time, that teaches primary voters to nominate less extreme candidates.

Yes, I realize that November’s presidential election seemed to rewrite the rules, but recall that there were severe problems with both candidates, and that while the Republican was the most extreme person we’ve seen as a major-party presidential nominee, his positions were all over the place, making it less clear that he was ideologically extreme, at least on average. Or maybe it was just a fluke. Whatever the explanation, it takes more than one election before you can declare centuries-old rules obsolete.

Of course, we would have had a very different Republican nominee if more than a tiny sliver of voters had participated in the GOP presidential primaries (that’s less certain on the Democratic side — this time).

Likewise, the configuration of our legislative districts wouldn’t matter nearly as much if more than a tiny sliver of voters participated in the state political primaries.

But they don’t, so our best chance of getting a chance to elect candidates that the majority of us like is to draw districts in such a way that I can’t tell you today which party will win practically every one of them in the next election.

And the only way that can happen is if someone other than the Legislature does the drawing.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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