Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Majority miinority districts run full circle

Congressional redistricting in North Carolina seems to have made a full circle. Going back to the redistricting following the 1990 census, legislators have drawn congressional districts that have none of the attributes those districts are supposed to possess: compactness, contiguity and communities of interest. And so the districts were litigated throughout the 1990s. Litigants lined up again after the 2000 census, and the current, post-2010 redistricting is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The most audacious of the district in all three redistricting eras was the 12th District, which has run from the Durham-Greensboro area down Interstate 85 to the Charlotte area, picking up minority voters along the way. The district in any of its incarnations cannot be said to compact, stretching some 200 miles, and it is barely contiguous, with some portions no wider than an interstate lane. As for communities of interests, that is a bit of a stretch. No visual depiction of the map of the district can elicit anything other than comedy and contempt.

Originally, the 12th was drawn to follow the federal decree that congressional districts could not dilute minority voting strength. The answer to that mandate was to draw "majority minority" districts, in which minority voters outnumbered white voters. The 12th gave a visual depiction of how difficult it can be to pull together enough minority voters to form a congressional district without also pulling in neighboring white voters.

The latest version of the 12th district is being criticized and adjudicated because critics believe it "packed" too many minority voters in majority-minority districts, thereby diluting the minority's ability to influence other congressional races. The districts drawn by Republicans, who were victorious in the 2010 legislative races, succeeded in packing Democrats and Republicans into separate districts with most districts holding a Republican majority. Thus, only three of North Carolina's 13 congressmen are Democrats.

So the arguments that led to the 1990 district maps — that minorities must be grouped into their own safe "majority minority" districts, allowing them to elect their own choice of representatives — has been turned around. In 2016 the argument is that the redistricting packed so many minorities into districts that they don't have much influence outside their two majority minority districts.

It seems likely that legislators will never find the perfect balance, especially as the balancing fulcrum of race-based political power keeps shifting. It is clear, though, that legislators are no good at drawing fair electoral districts, and they should give up. Districts should be drawn by a non-partisan, independent commission with instructions to draw districts that are compact, contiguous, communities of interests and that are fair to minority voters. It would also help if districts followed county lines and natural boundaries so that voters would know what district they are in.

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