NC struggles with gerrymandering
The makeup of the NC General Assembly is a bit odd on the surface given North Carolina is considered by many to be a swing state. But from a historical lens, the difference between North Carolina’s local representatives and its national stances are nothing new.
Benjamin Waterhouse, associate professor of history at UNC, said political parties used to be more determined by region rather than ideology, and the Republican Party was historically weak in the South.
“Especially from before the Civil War until the 1960s and even afterward, the Democratic Party was mostly the only game in town throughout much of the South,” Waterhouse said. “It’s referred to as the ‘Solid South.’ There were Republicans, but they weren’t very powerful.”
In the 100 years following the Civil War, many southerners saw the Republicans as the party of President Abraham Lincoln — and who brought on the ‘War of Northern Aggression.’ Waterhouse said that Southern Democrats had their roots in the ideals of white supremacy and that loyalty to their party had less to do with political ideology than the idea that the other party was inherently wrong.
This reasoning remained intact until southern white supremacists disagreed with their party’s leader: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. Waterhouse said that historians still talk about the day President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and remarked to an aide that he had delivered the South to the Republicans for a generation.
“Some people have commented that he really was off because he delivered it for multiple generations,” Waterhouse said.
But it took North Carolina state politics until the early 1990s for Republicans to gain enough traction to win a governor’s race or a majority in a legislative chamber, said Mitch Kokai, spokesperson for the John Locke Foundation.
Gerrymandering has helped both parties keep their power throughout history.
For instance, the infamous 12th congressional district, which originally stretched from Gastonia to Durham and was created in 1992. The district is notorious for its extreme gerrymandering. President George H.W. Bush’s Department of Justice demanded that North Carolina have two minority-majority districts, which were intended to increase the chances of minority candidates.
In 1993, NC Rep. Henry Michaux, D-Durham, commented on how parts of the 12th Congressional District were as wide as Interstate-85.
“If you drove down the interstate with both car doors open, you’d kill most of the people in the district,” Michaux said.
According to Kokai, gerrymandering wasn’t as common or significant in the state during the 1970s in the 1980s because the Republican party was so weak that it did not present an advantage for the Democrats.
“The first time that partisan gerrymandering really made a big difference in N.C. was after the 1990 census, that was when we first got that crazy snakelike 12th district,” Kokai said.
Twenty years later, the original tactics that Democrats had used in the 1990s with gerrymandering was flipped to benefit the Republican party in the 2010 congressional elections. Republicans were able to draw these district lines to maintain their supermajority power, Kokai said.
The two parties further alienated themselves from each other following the 2010 election. Since 2012, the Republicans have maintained a supermajority in both legislative branches.
North Carolina’s political arena became much more polarized, especially with the General Assembly’s 2011 redistricting, said Anita Earls, executive director of Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
“I think that the Republican party was much more moderate, and there was a lot more effort to craft policies that both parties would find acceptable and benefit the people of North Carolina,” Earls said.
North Carolina Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said that gerrymandering has made the negative, extremist political narrative possible.
“I think if we didn’t have gerrymandering, we would have actually closer to a 50-50 split, and people would have to work across the aisle to get things done,” Insko said.
North Carolina sends 10 Republicans and three Democrats to Congress, which inherently makes the Democratic Party weaker, Earls said.
Insko said if the Democratic Party can gain more strength in the next election cycle, the dynamics of the General Assembly would change.
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