A court-appointed “special master” released a first draft of maps this week that should lead to fairer, less-gerrymandered legislative districts in North Carolina. Now it’s Charlotte’s turn. Our City Council doesn’t reflect the city it serves. That should change.
The numbers: Democrats hold nine of the council’s 11 seats – or 82 percent – after all four at-large seats again went their way in last week’s election. Democrats, however, make up 48 percent of the Charlotte electorate. Republicans are 21 percent, with unaffiliated voters at 31 percent.
How many of those unaffiliated voters lean left or right? A good measure is city-wide races such as mayor, in which Democrats earned an average of 57 percent of the vote in the past five elections. In presidential and U.S. Senate elections, Democrats have consistently earned more than 60 percent.
A City Council that better reflects Charlotte would generally have a 7-4 Democratic majority or, at the least, three Republicans. (The Observer editorial board, by the way, endorsed candidates that would have made the council an 8-3 Democratic majority.) With at-large seats being comfortably Democratic, it’s unlikely the council will be anything but 9-2 in the near future. In fact, with Kenny Smith handily losing the mayor’s race after running a strong campaign, there’s a real danger that viable Republican candidates will decide not to waste their time in future city-wide races.
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That’s not good for Charlotte, which would benefit from its leadership having a little more ideological diversity. How can that happen? Three possibilities:
▪ Eliminate one or two at-large seats and redraw districts. Given the concentration of Republicans in south Charlotte, however, we’re not sure any map could solve Charlotte’s problems. We also don’t think gerrymandering is a good idea, no matter the outcome.
▪ Eliminate at-large seats and have a seven-member district-only council, as many large U.S. cities do. (Historical note: Charlotte went to district representation 40 years ago to diversify an all-white, south Charlotte council.) A district-only council would still likely be 70 percent Democrats – not quite representative, but an improvement.
▪ Non-partisan council elections. Of North Carolina’s 533 cities, only eight have partisan elections. Ironically, a Republican bill to make them all partisan went nowhere earlier this year.
Why non-partisan? Taking the “R” and “D” off the ballot helps to put more emphasis on candidates’ policy positions, not the party jerseys they wear. Better yet, non-partisan elections would give unaffiliated candidates – and unaffiliated voters – a better chance at representation. We think it’s a superior option for Charlotte.
It would take Democrats willingly giving up some power. That seems unlikely, but it shouldn’t be. If you frown at the N.C. General Assembly being redder than the state it serves, you also should be unhappy that our council is so blue.
No, City Council members aren’t the beneficiaries of gerrymandering, and they aren’t drawing maps that ensure their majority. But council members face the same question as those N.C. representatives: Is their power more important than the good of the people they represent?