Washington warned us about parties

In 2010, Florida voters approved amendments to their state’s constitution aimed at eliminating gerrymandering. The amendments provide that no state legislative and congressional district shall be drawn with the intent “to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent.”

The courts, thrown into the political thicket, responded promptly. In 2012 the Florida Supreme Court threw out the legislature’s plan for state Senate districts and ordered a new one. And a few days ago a state court judge ruled that two of Florida’s 27 congressional districts violated the no-favoritism standard.

Some critics, especially those who benefit from gerrymandering, deride such requirements as naive efforts to take the politics out of politics. We disagree. We see it as a way to ensure that elections reflect the will of the voters, not the dominant political party’s skill in map-making. When the law favors party interests over the public's interest, it erodes faith in the integrity of government.

That’s why such leaders as former governors Jim Hunt and Jim Martin and former mayors Richard Vinroot of Charlotte and Charles Meeker of Raleigh have called for an independent redistricting process. However, powerful legislators such as Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville and Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews oppose reform. Both – surprise, surprise! – hold seats that are safe for Republicans.

Gerrymandering is nothing new. The term was coined in 1812 to describe the redistricting plan drawn under Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. It included a district so contorted to help his party that critics likened it to a salamander.

The problem is worse today because of the political precision of maps drawn by computers. After the 2010 Census, N.C. Republicans used that tool with exquisite skill. One result: In our state’s 2012 elections for the U.S. House, Democratic candidates won more votes than Republican (2.2 million to 2.1 million) but Republicans won nine of the 13 House seats.

North Carolina is a prime example of the perversion of the process under both parties. In 2012 Republicans won the House by a 77-43 margin and the Senate 33-17. This year, some experts say only nine of the 120 House seats and three of the 50 Senate seats are competitive. The others are safe for one party or the other.

President George Washington warned in his 1796 farewell address that political parties are likely to become “potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and usurp for themselves the reins of government....” He said “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party” make it “the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

Washington was right about the danger of parties. Reforming the redistricting process would be a start toward combating it.