The recent primary election is now in the books, and it was another time of working down at the polls during the early voting period. The early voting itself was pretty busy, with many people casting their vote before the Tuesday election. While assisting voters, it seemed like I offered a couple of statements, or variations of them, in response to the voters hundreds of times.
The first was, “No, I’m not asking to see your ID. We’re just reminding everyone that you will need to present proper photo identification in 2016 when you vote.” This was to remind the voters of the voting changes for 2016 made by the North Carolina legislature this past session, and to help prepare voters for those changes. Often I would add something like, “Hey, if you legally drove here to vote, you’re OK.”
The second statement it seemed like I said a hundred times was, “Yes, you have the right ballot. The reason you can’t vote in that commissioner’s race is because you don’t live in that district.” Often I would end up showing them the map of the districts. The voter would look at it, and try to figure which district they lived in. After looking at how the lines were drawn, they most often would say something like, “This doesn’t make sense.” I would shake my head in agreement because we consider the voters our customers. And we all have been taught that the customer is always right.
But in reality, the way the county commissioner district lines are drawn up doesn’t appear to make sense. For example, there are neighborhoods in Clinton that have three county commissioners representing them. You may have one county commissioner representing you and your neighbor across the road may have another. We have one district that goes from Salemburg to Ivanhoe, and another that goes all the way from Autryville to near Turkey. Why are the lines drawn that way? There are two basic reasons, gerrymandering and the Federal government.
Gerrymandering is a term used to describe when political district lines are drawn in such a way to be favorable to a particular individual, group, or political party. The term has been around quite a while. According to Wikipedia, (the expert in all things) “The word was created by the “Boston Gazette” in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under the then-governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander.” Combine Gov. Gerry with salamander and you end up with a gerrymander. The term stuck and has become a fixture on the political landscape ever since.
Gerrymandering takes place in all levels of elected government. Have you ever seen a map of the North Carolina Congressional districts? You can always tell who is in power by the way the lines are drawn. Our current congressman, Mike McIntyre, was redistricted out of his 7th District seat by the Republican legislature in 2010 and his hometown, Lumberton, isn’t even in the district anymore. After sneaking by and winning in 2012, he decided not to try to beat the odds and run again. On the state level, nearly half of the 170 seats in the General Assembly are already set for next year because the legislative districts were drawn to favor one party, so there is no challenger in the November general election. Likewise, only one of the three local county commissioner seats open this year will be contested this fall. And if you look where some local officials live and own property, you may question if some gerrymandering was involved in determining district lines.
The Federal government also has a huge say in how district lines are determined, at all levels of government. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed inorder to ensure voting rights and proper representation for all Americans. Part of that law led to the creation of majority minority voting districts, districts with a majority, or near majority, of minority voters. This was done inorder to promote minority elected representation in government. The need to get a larger percentage of minority voters in a voting district is one of the reasons a couple of the Sampson County commissioner districts are so spread out and weave in and out of communities. A couple of N.C. Congressional Districts, including our own “salamander” 12th District, are examples of minority majority districts on that level.
The ironic thing about this is that creation of these minority majority districts almost assures that the other party not representing that minority, will almost always win any district surrounding one of those special districts. That’s one of the primary reasons that North Carolina, a state which is probably pretty evenly split Democrat and Republican, now has nine Republican congressmen and only four Democrats. And it also makes it more difficult for a minority candidate, who doesn’t live in a minority majority district, to be elected.
Hopefully, one day elections will be determined by the qualifications of the candidates, not how the lines are drawn. But, in the meantime, when you look at political districts on a map and think that they don’t make sense, just remember that they are probably a result of politicians looking after their own self-interest, and the Federal government. You’re not surprised, are you?