Civic engagement and activism has arguably hit a new high in the past two years, with the proliferation of protests – from the continuation of Moral Mondays to the recent teacher’s rally in Raleigh. Protest signs are plastered with reminders of the upcoming midterm election this November and the general election in 2020.
Yet, there is little dialogue around an issue that robs the power of “We the People” to choose our representatives, and allows our elected officials to govern without the pressure of accountability or competition.
The cause of this lack of accountability and competition in elections is known as gerrymandering. This is a term that dates back to 1812 and refers to the practice of partisan politicians manipulating voting districts in a way that ensures that their party is favored in elections.
For example, did you know that visiting the courthouse and then grabbing a meal at The Corner Cafe will land you a trip to two separate voting districts? That is because South Poplar Street is split down the middle, a local example of partisan gerrymandering.
Our voting districts are required to be redrawn every 10 years, following the census, to account for changes in the population. Every district must have an equal population to ensure that every vote holds the same amount of influence, a practice known as “one person, one vote.” In North Carolina, the power of drawing the districts is given to the majority party in control of the state legislature. There is an inherent conflict of interest here, as the very people you expect to be accountable and responsive to constituents are instead leveraging their position to cement power and stiffen any real competition.
The result is an apathetic electorate, and legislators who do not represent their constituents. For example, while Republicans won roughly 53 percent of statewide votes in the November 2016 election, they prevailed in 76 percent of district races — making the state appear much more red than its true purple hue. Similar disproportionate outcomes were seen when Democrats held the legislative majority in past years.
There is potential that partisan gerrymandering could end through court action. Earlier this year, a federal district court ruled the practice unconstitutional and ordered legislators to redraw the district lines. This decision was appealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay. While the future of partisan gerrymandering is unclear in the court system, there is no question that citizens and many local leaders are calling for its demise.
A majority of North Carolinians support the creation of an independent commission to draw voting districts, while 274 elected officials in 132 cities and towns in the state have signed a pledge in support of ending gerrymandering. Unfortunately, the legislature is reluctant to act.
Last year, a bipartisan State House Bill known as HB200 was introduced to implement the independent commission. Although the bill was sponsored by four Republicans and has the backing of 39 representatives, it has yet to be given a vote or even a conference.
While the fight for redistricting reform may seem like a daunting process, there is strength in numbers and persistence. Here is what Bladen County residents can do to help now:
1) Contact your State House Representatives — William Brisson, Brenden Jones and Senator Bill Rabon — and urge them to support House Bill 200. You can find their contact information by visiting the NC General Assembly’s website at NCleg.net.
2) Join the thousands of North Carolina citizens that have signed the petition to end gerrymandering at EndGerrymanderingNow.org.
3) Organize a district meeting in your hometown with your state lawmakers to discuss nonpartisan redistricting. Invite your friends and neighbors to attend.
4) Spread the word on social media about HB200 or write a letter to the editor of the Bladen Journal sharing your views on gerrymandering.
5) Ask your local government to join the dozen towns and cities throughout the state that have passed resolutions calling on the legislature to enact nonpartisan redistricting.
6) Be on the lookout for the Fair Maps Pledge prior to the November election, where you can check and see which candidates for the legislature have committed to redistricting reform.
It is time to put fair voting districts and accountable representatives before partisan politics. Take action today and demand change from your state lawmakers and local elected officials.
Hayley Milczakowski is a lifelong Bladen County resident and an intern at Common Cause NC, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that promotes fair and accountable government. She is an alumna of North Carolina State University and a rising second-year law student at North Carolina Central School of Law.