In My Words: We the People seek an end to partisan gerrymandering
Dave Gammon, associate professor of biology, writes in this column for the Elon University Writers Syndicate that we deserve better than politically driven legislative maps.
This column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate was published in The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Virginia and the Burlington Times-News. Views expressed in this column are the author's own and not necessarily those of Elon University.
By Dave Gammon
The year 2017 might come to be known as the year the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down what Justice Samuel Alito called the “distasteful” practice of partisan gerrymandering. Opening arguments for a Wisconsin case of partisan gerrymandering were delivered just a few days ago. Regardless of how the high court responds, citizens of the United States deserve better.
Gerrymandering has been practiced by both political parties for more than two centuries. It consists of using geographic data on voting patterns to redraw legislative districts. By packing opposition voters into as few districts as possible and then diluting the number of opposition voters in the other districts, mapmakers leverage advantages over their political opponents.
North Carolina has attracted national attention in recent years because of legislative maps created and adopted by Republican lawmakers just before the 2012 elections. The law gave these lawmakers authority to draw the maps, but critics argue the maps unfairly tilt political power to the right.
North Carolina deserves its reputation as a purple state. From 1993 through 2013, North Carolina members the U.S. House of Representatives were 50 percent Republican and 50 percent Democrat. As a purple voter myself, I have felt at home in North Carolina.
After the adoption of the 2012 maps, however, the Old North State became undeniably redder. In the 2012 elections, despite winning just 48.7 percent of the overall votes, Republicans gained three seats in the U.S. House, raising their total to nine of 13 legislative districts.
Additional proof North Carolina’s legislative maps were partisan gerrymandered comes from an unlikely source – Duke University mathematician Jonathan Mattingly. Using his background in probability theory and computer programming, Mattingly designed an algorithm that draws legislative boundaries randomly, while still meeting the requirements mandated by law. Importantly, his districts were based purely on geography and demography, not voter behavior.
Mattingly wanted to see if the 2012 results would have changed if legislative districts had been drawn by his nonbiased algorithm. By accessing public voting records he determined Republicans should have won a maximum of seven districts, with five or six being the most likely result. In reality, Republicans have controlled nine or 10 districts since the 2012 elections.
Mattingly’s simulations therefore constitute compelling evidence that partisan gerrymandering is occurring in North Carolina.
At this point, Republican readers might raise two objections: First, why should they trust the “statistical voodoo” of an academic? In response, readers can observe the probability for themselves. Flip a coin 20 times, and see how unlikely it is to get just one head and 19 tails. That result, based on the well-understood binomial distribution, approximates the observed likelihood one of Mattingly’s election maps would have yielded the actual election totals of 2012.
Republicans might also question why they should surrender any of the mapmaking power legally given to them. If you view Democrats as an enemy to be dominated, then I have no counterargument; gerrymandering is clearly an effective weapon to disempower political opponents.
But I believe most of my Republican friends are open to a less overtly partisan method for drawing maps. It is hypocritical to speak forcefully against “rigged elections,” and then to tolerate legislative maps designed intentionally to rig an election. As taught by Jesus and many other religious figures, we should love our enemies, not sideline them. Elections should be won based on merit rather than by stacking the deck.
Republicans should also care because someday the political tables will be turned on them. The tables have already turned in some states. In fact, the most gerrymandered state in the country, based on Mattingly’s simulations, is Democrat-controlled Maryland. We can do better.
Comments from Chief Justice Roberts and others suggest the possibility the Supreme Court might dismiss the gerrymandering case. This possibility certainly has strong legal justification. Court intervention against Republican gerrymandering in Wisconsin would generate widespread perception the court favors Democrats and possibly weaken public faith in the judicial system.
All eyes now rest on the heavily-guarded mind of Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose decision will probably break what would otherwise be a 4-4 stalemate. Kennedy aside, a more permanent solution should be nonpartisan and independent from lawmakers.
It is time for legislative maps to reflect the interests of all Americans. It is time to end partisan gerrymandering.