A novel way that citizens can end gerrymandering

Voters registering as Unaffiliated or Republican in North Carolina could help solve the gerrymandering problem.
Voters registering as Unaffiliated or Republican in North Carolina could help solve the gerrymandering problem. THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

North Carolina’s current system of gerrymandered voting districts is indeed harmful. Undemocratic and alien to American values, gerrymandering – drawing electoral districts to favor certain parties and minimize competitiveness of general elections – also undermines our society in many ways.

The answer to this problem, we believe, may seem counterintuitive, but is compelling: convince non-Republicans to register Republican or, almost as usefully, Unaffiliated.

Here’s why. The most obvious downside to gerrymandered districts is that they make voting for all but statewide or national offices largely futile, because elections are non-competitive and often do not offer multiple candidates. Gerrymandered districts thus discourage turnout and reduce citizen participation in governance.

But that’s just a start. Without gerrymandering, democracy is like free-market capitalism: It generates better ideas and candidates by fostering competition for votes. In this system, politicians compete for the center and avoid extreme positions supported by only a fraction of voters.

Granted, politicians and political parties end up looking very much alike, but they also have incentive to innovate and to be philosophically close to a large number of citizens.

Regardless of which party wins, gerrymandered systems like those in North Carolina (and Maryland, where the Democrats did the gerrymandering; this isn’t a partisan point) do not represent popular preferences. The actual choices occur in primaries, when the most energized and extreme voters usually choose the dominant party’s candidate.

Since relatively few people vote in primaries, and even fewer moderates, candidates have incentive to offer extreme views that appeal to the fringes of the electorate. The legislature ends up full of politicians with extreme views. Meanwhile, the party that has no chance of winning in a district gradually withers in that district. Worse, lack of competition ultimately means the dominant party will produce increasingly uninspiring candidates. And worst of all, once in power elected officials have no incentive to collaborate with legislators less extreme than themselves.

A truly competitive environment leads to outcomes preferred by a majority. It also leads to better- quality policies than those taken from a small fraction of the electorate – much less by a tiny group on Jones Street.

So, how can the electorate fight back against gerrymandering? While supporting calls for a non-partisan commission to redraw district lines in a more balanced way, we recognize the difficulties of implementing such changes. But there is another strategy: to force the parties toward the center by making primary elections more like general elections.

This can only happen if the grip of extremist voters is loosened, and one way to loosen that power is to dilute it. Our proposal is simple: We call on centrist voters in North Carolina to move from their Democratic or Libertarian affiliations and register Unaffiliated or Republican. Voters who do so can still vote for the party of their choice in the general election, but registering Unaffiliated or Republican allows them to vote in Republican primary races, where important choices are being made. And only by registering as Republican can they participate in local meetings, serve as delegates, or run for office.

A mass movement by non-Republicans to change their registration and vote for more moderate candidates in the primaries will force GOP politicians to tack to the center or face primary defeat. This tactic would make it more difficult to gerrymander effectively, as party identification will no longer readily translate into support in general elections. Third, more centrist Republicans who win primaries thanks to newly “converted” voters will have an incentive to create districts with electorates more representative of the state’s median voter.

The most attractive aspect of this approach is that the public cannot be stopped from carrying it out. In fact, even though it will be disastrous for current Republican politicians, it is not in the interest of the state GOP to stop such a strategy: If more moderate voters join the Republican party, the party will be more likely to represent the median voter, at least until the Democratic party also evolves. A more representative party will continue to win elections.

As the GOP tacks to the center, stage two of the revolt would be for all voters to register randomly, thereby ensuring that both parties are forced to compete for the entire electorate. And on that glorious day, gerrymandering will wither away.

The authors are professors at Duke University. Becker and Tower are Republicans; Caldwell and Munger are Libertarians. Their views represent neither Duke nor their parties.