As his time in the White House neared an end, President Ronald Reagan gave a final televised interview as commander in chief to ABC News journalist and North Carolina native David Brinkley in December of 1988.
Among the concerns Reagan voiced for his country was the manner by which congressional and legislative districts are re-drawn every 10 years, typically by the very politicians who have the most to gain or lose depending on how those districts are crafted.
“This is a great conflict of interest, to ask men elected from districts to change the line of that district,” Reagan said. “I think gerrymandering is basically what takes place.”
Coincidentally, just weeks after Reagan called for redistricting reform, then newly elected Republican Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County filed a bill in the N.C. House of Representatives to do just that. But that proposal in 1989 — like each ensuing redistricting reform plan suggested by Republicans in the coming decades — was quickly shelved by the Democratic majority.
Years later, the 2010 election sent shockwaves through the North Carolina political landscape and gave Republicans full control of the legislature for the first time in more than a century. When the GOP took the gavel in both the state House and Senate, much changed from the era of Democratic dominance. But there was at least one constant: Rep. Stam’s steadfast support for bringing an end to gerrymandering.
With his party now in the majority, Stam filed a redistricting reform bill in 2011 that passed the state House with bipartisan support, but stalled in the Senate. This year, he has put forward a similar proposal — House Bill 92 — that would take redistricting power out of the hands of partisan lawmakers and give it to nonpartisan legislative staff. Stam’s bill won 63 co-sponsors, a majority of the state House.
“The idea is that in constructing districts, the people with the most at stake are probably the ones that shouldn’t be doing the details,” Stam said.
In concept, redistricting is intended to ensure that our state’s voting districts contain an equal number of residents. In practice, however, the process allows whichever party is in control of the legislature to manipulate voting maps to favor their own candidates — at the expense of fair elections.
The result has been gerrymandered districts that are largely noncompetitive. Since 1992, nearly half of the state’s legislative races have had just one name on the ballot, depriving voters of a choice in who represents them.
For years, Democrats indulged in gerrymandering. And upon taking power, Republicans did the same. After feeling the sting of gerrymandering themselves, Democrats who once resisted redistricting reform are now converted to the cause.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that some Republicans who backed redistricting reform before the 2010 elections are wavering on the need for change now that they are in charge of the map-drawing process. But Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County, who has joined Stam as a chief author of House Bill 92, urges his GOP colleagues to stick to their convictions on supporting redistricting reform.
“What I would say to my fellow Republicans is this was right when we were not in the majority, and it’s still right,” McGrady said.
Indeed, while party control has switched in Raleigh, the impact of gerrymandered districts on North Carolina voters has not. In 2014, just 8 percent of legislative races were truly competitive. This lack of competition at the ballot box makes for a government that is essentially unaccountable to citizens.
Rep. Jon Hardister, a Guilford County Republican, was five years old when President Reagan called for redistricting reform a quarter century ago. Now he too has joined Stam as one of the primary supporters of House Bill 92.
“Redistricting reform is necessary,” Hardister said. “For me, it’s about good government. It’s about the golden rule: treating others the way you want to be treated.”
Twenty-six years after President Reagan called for an end to gerrymandering, his fellow Republicans can carry on his legacy and finally establish a common-sense approach to redistricting, ensuring that North Carolina voters have a choice and voice in our elections. It would be quite a victory for the people of North Carolina.
(Bob Phillips is executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to encouraging citizen participation in democracy.)