Gerrymandering: Good or bad?

Robeson County is gerrymandered. So here’s the question. Is this a bad thing?

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing political boundaries that give one political party numeric advantage over the other. It’s a complex process to explain.

But understand that the party in power controls how district lines are drawn and for more than 100 years, both sides always draw them to their advantage. Neither side is innocent.

Rather than voters picking their representatives, it’s really the process of elected officials picking their voters. But it gets more complicated.

The courts have spent quite a bit of time discussing the extent that ethnicity can be taken into account when drawing districts. On one hand, the courts have discussed race can be taken into account as this ensures minority representation. But on the other hand courts have objected when race was the predominant reason for the way lines are drawn.

The two methods that take advantage of this construct either dilute minority voters, spreading them thinly throughout a district, or by creating minority majority districts, where minorities are packed into districts, guaranteeing minority representation but increasing majority districts elsewhere.

The methods assume minority voters favor one party over the other — and they do. African-Americans were all Republicans after the Civil War and although half were still Republicans in 1932, 71 percent of African Americans voted for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt.

According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, this was when the shift began due to New Deal promises by Democrats. By 1948, the shift was nearly complete as Harry Truman won 77 percent of the African-American vote with the majority of African-Americans identifying with the Democratic Party by this time.

Today there is evidence younger African-Americans are slowly drifting away from the Democratic Party, but a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t received more than 15 percent of the African-American vote since President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act with bi-partisan support. It first passed in the House on Feb. 10, 1964, by a margin of 290-130. By Party, 61 percent of Democratic lawmakers supported the bill (152 yeas and 96 nays) and 80 percent of Republicans supported it (138 yeas and 34 nays).

Statewide gerrymandering to keep racial balance has been problematic. Jeffery Toobin, a New Yorker staff writer probably put it best when he said, “Is it in the interest of African-Americans to have African American legislators or is it in their interest for the party they belong to have power?” Toobin says it may not be possible to have both.

State Republican Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse says the reason is that Democrats have lost voters and they don’t have voters in the right places.

But that isn’t the issue in Robeson. It simply explains how gerrymandering works on a grander scale.

Robeson is perfectly tri-racial. Democrats have also traditionally controlled the county. So why are commissioner districts racially gerrymandered?

Well, the obvious reason is a good one. It allows for equal representation of a tri-racial community. But this assumes people with similar skin pigment think alike or at least like to have representatives that look like them.

Robeson is actually headed toward a different problem than Democrats have statewide. Is it more important to have a representative that looks like you or is it more important to have a representative who shares your ideology and balances ideological power?

Robeson fears corruption. But corruption is associated with neither skin pigment nor party identification. A two-party system provides watchdogs for each other. It keeps both sides accountable. Sharing power is a good thing as concentrated power is generally a bad thing.

So there’s partisan gerrymandering and there’s racial gerrymandering. We all must decide if any gerrymandering is fair.

At least locally, is it better to divide races or divide power? As Toobin says, it may not be possible to have both. So whether it’s right or wrong, gerrymandering is something we all historically do.

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Phillip Stephens is chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.

Phillip Stephens is chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.