In my career as a Superior Court judge, I worked under the guiding principle that everyone deserves a fair hearing. Courtrooms are governed by well-established rules to ensure that all sides are heard, and that faith in the process is maintained.
As it is in our courtrooms, so it should be in our democracy. Unfortunately, decades of slanted and skewed congressional and legislative districts have denied a fair hearing to many N.C. voters and rendered our politicians less accountable to the people they serve. This trend is dangerous to the future of our democracy.
A stubborn habit of gerrymandering, well-entrenched in both parties, has led to repeated and costly court battles. Just last week, a federal court in Greensboro took up the latest dispute over biased legislative districts, adding yet more confusion to an election cycle that has already seen last-minute changes to voting rules and district boundaries.
Tilting a single election is bad enough. But the true harm of warped districts comes from the long-term erosion of faith in our democratic values. Representative democracy has proven its mettle for more than two centuries. But it only works if people retain faith in the process.
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Lately, that faith has been slipping. Since 1992, almost half of all N.C. legislative races have seen only one candidate on the ballot. And this year, more than 40 percent of our legislative candidates are running unopposed – at a time when polls show a large number of North Carolinians disapprove of the General Assembly. Disaffected voters and unchallenged politicians are not a good recipe for effective democracy.
We can fix this. We can lay out a set of rules that honor the best traditions of self-government and restore pride in our civic institutions. This week, some of my former judicial colleagues will gather at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy to demonstrate how we might make positive change. In partnership with Common Cause North Carolina, we’re hosting a simulation exercise of how an independent, bipartisan commission on redistricting might work. Our effort is open to the public and we hope will showcase a fair and transparent approach for setting boundaries.
A bipartisan group of former N.C. judges will hold a public discussion on proven models for redistricting, then cast some much-needed sunlight on the actual mechanics of drawing fair legislative districts.
For too long, our dominant image of district-making has been a darkened room where politicians and paid consultants parse North Carolina with an Etch-a-Sketch and emerge with a slate of partisan boundaries. They fracture the map, and in the process they deepen the fracture in our politics.
Our model commission will open up the process. It will show that it’s possible to honor the core principles of representative government, ensuring that every vote counts and that every voice carries weight.
North Carolinians deserve a legislative process they can be proud of. Polls consistently show a strong majority of voters, from every party and ideological affiliation, favor an independent redistricting process. They want elections that are fought on the strength of individual candidates and their ideas, not the rule-bending creativity of party bosses.
It’s an idea that unites Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper, that wins the endorsement of Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, and that has repeatedly gained support among citizens only to fall short among self-interested lawmakers.
The time has come for the voters to pick the politicians, not the other way around.
Ross, former president of UNC, is the Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.