Cleaner maps, just as dirty

The Observer editorial board

You have to give Sen. Bob Rucho and the gang credit: N.C. Republicans this week used masterful sleight of hand to beautify North Carolina’s congressional districts and their own election prospects at the same time.

Good-government types have long called on both Democrats and Republicans to end decades of redistricting pornography and draw maps featuring boring, compact districts, not ones that look like something slithering under a rock in the woods.

The politicians ignored those calls, but they couldn’t ignore the demand from a federal court this month to redraw the state’s unconstitutional districts. The judges said Districts 1 and 12 were improper racial gerrymanders.

To the surprise of almost everyone, Republicans returned with a dramatically different batch of districts. Most astonishing: The districts are notably compact, with the serpentine 12th now fully inside Mecklenburg County and the 1st transformed from an octopus to something closer to a cow.

The map is undeniably more pleasing to the eye, and dials back on racial gerrymandering a little. But as the mapmakers themselves admit, the results will be no different: In a state that votes roughly 50-50 for president and Congress, the congressional delegation will remain 10-3 Republican. That’s an insult to voters and democracy, not because it benefits Republicans but because it manipulates lines to heavily benefit one party in a decidedly two-party state.

The old map was the Donald Trump of congressional maps: Outlandishly over the top with ugly consequences. The new map is the Ted Cruz of congressional maps: Not as egregious on the surface, but producing equally disturbing results.

While the new districts are more compact, they have just enough twists and turns to ensure that not one of the 13 is reliably competitive for both parties. Districts 1, 4 and 12 will vote Democratic. All the rest will vote Republican. In a state that voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama 51-49, only the new 13th District had less than a 10-point spread in that race. The rest feature no real competition between the parties.

That means all the real action happens in the primary, not the general election. Forced by their own unconstitutional efforts to move the congressional primary from March to June, Republican legislators have ensured a lower turnout. So with little real competition in November, a relative handful of voters will select the state’s delegation for the next two years.

These districts have been cleaned up enough to meet the parents. But they still harbor unclean intentions.