Carving up votes

If the Republicans who filed suit over legislative redistricting win their case in the North Carolina Supreme Court, the people of our state will be the losers.

If the lawsuit is successful:

• Legislative campaigns will become more costly — and more dependent on TV ads.

• The clout of big money, special interests and wealthy candidates will grow, and the cause of campaign-finance reform will suffer.

• Average people will have a harder time contacting their legislators, and fewer good people will run for the state legislature.

All of these trends have been decried in the past by North Carolina’s news media — and by advocates of better government. The media, however, have paid surprisingly little attention to how the redistricting scheme developed by the Republican legislative leadership would make those problems worse.

The fundamental question is this: Should redistricting rely more on single-member or multimember districts? The legislature adopted a plan that emphasizes single-member districts. The lawsuit would impose a plan emphasizing multimember districts.

What difference does it make?

In a single-member district, one House member would represent about 67,000 North Carolinians. In a district that size, candidates can drive around, talk personally to voters and listen to their concerns.

But the Republicans who filed suit take the opposite approach. In Mecklenburg and Gaston counties, for example, they propose to create a megadistrict with 670,000 people and 10 representatives.

Mecklenburg isn’t the only megadistrict that some Republicans would force upon us. The 14th District in Wake County would elect eight representatives. The sprawling 31st would elect seven House members from six counties: Catawba, Cleveland, Henderson, Lincoln, Polk and Rutherford. Across the state, more than 40 percent of all districts would be multimember. In the polling place, voters in those areas could be forced to choose among multiple candidates for four, eight or even 10 seats.

Worse yet, a state legislative district could have more people and cover more land than North Carolina’s congressional districts!

How will legislative candidates campaign in big districts? They certainly won’t have time to drive around talking personally to 300,000, 400,000 or 600,000 people. Instead, they’ll do what congressional candidates and statewide candidates do: raise big money and run television ads.

They won’t go door to door in your neighborhood or meet with — and listen to — small groups of interested voters. Instead, they’ll be attending high-dollar fund-raising events, phoning potential contributors and putting on makeup in television studios.

Nothing could be worse for politics in North Carolina today than going down this road, which plainly takes us in the wrong direction. It favors wealthy candidates. It favors the special interests that raise big money. It makes it harder for you — as a citizen and voter — to get the ear of your state representative. And it makes it harder than ever to persuade good people to run for the legislature.

The lawsuit claims that splitting counties into single-member districts violates the state constitution. Yes, the constitution does say that counties should not be split — but there’s more to the story.

In 1983, a distinguished panel of federal judges — Dickson Phillips, Earl Britt and Franklin Dupree — handed down a well-reasoned decision on the county issue. They held that the whole-county provision is not enforceable in the 40 counties that are covered by Section 5 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in elections.

The court reasoned that when the whole-county provision was included in the state’s constitution, it obviously was not intended to apply to only half the state. So the court concluded that the legislature is not bound by the constitutional provision at all.

The lawsuit now asks the N.C. Supreme Court to reach a much different (and decidedly illogical) conclusion. The Republicans who sued want the court to say the state constitution’s whole-county provision covers half of North Carolina — and not the other half.

Illogic of this magnitude is clear evidence that the lawsuit is based on politics, not principle. It is also interesting to note that the same Republican legislators who now support multimember districts sponsored measures in the last session to prohibit such districts.

Clearly, it is well-nigh impossible to take party politics out of redistricting. You could more easily take the jumping out of NCAA basketball.

But it is possible to devise a redistricting plan that gives voters more voice in electing their representatives. Many legislators — Democrats and Republicans alike — believe the plan passed by the General Assembly does just that. By dividing counties into single-member districts, the plan benefits the people of North Carolina.

Unfortunately, some Republican legislators and party leaders would rather give rich candidates, big money and big media campaigns still more clout.

So don’t be misled by the scant media coverage of these issues. And don’t be fooled by those Republican legislators who championed single-member districts until their sudden, recent conversion to this newfound faith in multimember districts — much to the chagrin of many of their Republican colleagues in the House.

Look at the facts, and decide for yourself which direction is best for North Carolina.

N.C. Rep. Ronnie Sutton, D-Pembroke, is co-chair of the House Committee on Legislative Redistricting.

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