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Election maps need not be Rorschach tests

By Taylor Batten

Sunday morning riddle fun:

Q. A state that is politically split 50-50 elects a congressional delegation, a state House and a state Senate overwhelmingly tilted toward one party. How?

A: By changing the locks on the doors. While one party is fumbling around in the hallway, the other boots up the computer and quickly draws all the districts to suit themselves.

Presto! North Carolina, the third-closest state in the nation in presidential voting, elects Republicans to nine of 13 congressional seats and gives them huge, veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate.

Democrats did it for decades. When Republicans finally got their chance to sit at the mapmaking computers last year, they extracted their retribution.

Why care? Because it neuters the voters, regardless of party. Legislators craft seats that are locks for one party or the other. Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer says just 11 of 120 state House seats and three of 50 Senate seats are toss-ups. That leaves a million or two voters with no voice. It also scares moderates away from running, because they’re likely to lose in a primary.

A fact of life, you say? It seems like it, after all these years. But cast your eyes northwest, to the great state of Iowa. Something truly remarkable is happening there.

In Iowa, nonpartisan legislative staffers draw the maps and the legislature takes an up or down vote, no tinkering, no lobbying, no amendments. The map drawers don’t consider what their work will mean for incumbents, or for Democrats, or for Republicans. They adhere to criteria around population, compactness and the like. They basically draw a bunch of squares and rectangles and are done.

This creates a number of highly competitive districts, often pitting incumbents against each other, from the House majority leader on down. So you can imagine how these maps go over with the legislature.

Actually, you probably can’t. They typically sail through in no time. Last year, the maps passed 48-1 in the Senate and 90-7 in the House, and the governor had signed them into law three weeks after they debuted.

According to folks I talked to in Iowa, it really is as easy as that. The professional staff really is considered nonpartisan. Both parties recognize that the maps could hurt them here or there. But they usually approve the staff’s first or second try in a heavily bipartisan vote and move on. Sitting here in North Carolina, Iowa’s internal congeniality on this most political act strikes you as some kind of strange Leave It To Beaver time warp.

“The maps screw both parties equally,” David Yepsen, the longtime political editor at the Des Moines Register who now directs a public policy institute at Southern Illinois University, told me. “Everyone thinks every district could be won by either party if you get the right candidate.”

Is bringing such a sane, fair system to North Carolina impossible? Perhaps. You’d probably have to wrestle the redistricting mouse out of the cold, dead hands of whichever party is in power – currently, Republicans. (You’d also have to adapt Iowa’s system to account for our less-boxy shape, and deal with complications from Voting Rights Act requirements, but those are conquerable details.)

On the other hand, a bill that would essentially put the Iowa model in place here passed the N.C. House in a bipartisan 88-27 vote last year. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and other GOP leaders supported it. It died in the Senate.

Jane Pinsky, a government reform advocate, will be at the Charlotte Chamber Tuesday, meeting with business leaders about the Iowa model. It’s one that businesspeople should like, she says, because it could elect more centrists and reduce some of the wild swings in control from one party to the other.

Legislators should think about it. Times change, the party in power might not stay there, and the Iowa model could offer protection. And it’s clearly better for voters.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com.
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