Gerrymandering Doesn’t Always Succeed

A salamander crawling on a map of North Carolina's 13th District

A salamander crawling on a map of North Carolina's 13th District
Last week, Democratic congressional candidate Kathy Manning talked to the Associated Press about her mid-term loss to 13th district Republican incumbent Ted Budd. Said Manning, “We did everything we could, but we just could not overcome the gerrymandering.” Were he alive today, founding father James Madison might take issue with Ms. Manning’s assessment.

In 1788, Patrick Henry persuaded the Virginia General Assembly to re-draw the 5th Congressional district to favor his friend James Monroe, who was running against Madison, a sworn enemy of Henry’s. But despite Patrick Henry’s map manipulation, James Madison still defeated Monroe. The reason was simple. Voters who showed up at the polls simply preferred Madison over Monroe. Though it fell short initially, Patrick Henry’s plan to craft a district in favor of one party over another was the first documented case of gerrymandering in America, and served as a template for a form of voter suppression that has remained a part of the political landscape for 230 years.

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare election outcomes that are two centuries apart, or two candidates with such distinctly different resumes. After all, Madison is famous for writing the Constitution, while Manning is mainly famous for writing checks to Democrats. Still, Madison overcame a rigged system to win, and that’s no small feat. Which raises the question, if Kathy Manning only lost because of district-wide gerrymandering, then how did two local Democratic candidates defeat two GOP incumbent sheriffs? And how did Democrat Michael Garrett beat Republican incumbent Trudy Wade for a seat in the State Senate? It’s because the folks who turned out on November 6 were selectively energized. They proved that a coalition of inspired Democrats, independents, and first-time voters could thumb their noses at the architects of gerrymandering, while refusing to be a lemming for every single Democratic candidate.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not downplaying the corrupt nature of gerrymandering. In fact, I continue to call for the creation of a non-partisan commission to re-draw district lines. I’m just saying that until such time as those boundaries can be drawn without respect to party politics, that there is a way to beat back gerrymandering. How? For one thing, unaffiliated voters now constitute the second largest block of registered voters in North Carolina (2 million, compared to 2.5 million Democrats and 1.5 million Republicans) and when enough of them are energized at the same time as Democrats, then upsets can happen.

The problem is that in most gerrymandered districts, North Carolina Democrats and independents don’t all get energized at the same time over the same issues, which explains why even though Democrats accounted for nearly half of the popular vote for Congressional candidates statewide, Republicans still retained 10 of our 13 congressional seats.

Regardless of what the courts might order us to do about our gerrymandered map in the short term, we know that two years from now, the state legislature will draw up an entirely new map based on the 2020 census. Between now and then, a number of organizations, and men like former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, are focused on getting people registered to vote and keeping them energized to participate in the political process. If they are successful, then new coalitions of voters can play a significant role in thwarting the goals of gerrymandering. To paraphrase Senator Cory Booker, “the power of the people is more powerful than the people in power.” James Madison believed that to be true in 1788, and it is still true today.


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