Carolina Curious: Why Not Draw Voting Districts With County Lines?
There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about who should be drawing North Carolina’s legislative districts and how it might be done.
Those questions have been underlined by a host of lawsuits over the fairness of districts, both state and federal.
WFDD listener Steve Patterson asked us why electoral maps can’t be created in a simpler way:
Why can’t voting districts be drawn using established county lines in order to eliminate gerrymandering of the districts?
On the practicalities of making sure each district has an equal population:
As long as you're going to have single member districts – that is, if you have 120 members of the State House, if you have 50 members of the State Senate – if you're going to have one member for each district and you're also going to be required to have each district be an equal population, you're going to have to violate the one county rule.
Because sometimes to have the districts be of an equal population you're going to have to break up districts or sometimes you're going to have to have one county whole, combined with half or part of another county. So given these competing considerations it's just not possible to actually keep all the counties whole, in practice.
A few examples to look at:
In fact, up until the 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its "one person, one vote" rules, there were districts around the country – some that they'd have ten times as many people in a neighboring district for Congress, or for state legislature – and at that time the U.S. Supreme Court said "that is no longer allowed, that violates the 'one person, one vote' rule."
So one thing I would say is, if you look at the three main maps to look at – one is the map for the congressional districts; two is the map for the State Senate districts; and three is the map for the State House districts – you will see county boundaries respected to a great degree. That is, there are some districts that consist entirely of a single county, or other districts that consist of just two counties.
So it's not that county lines aren't taken into account, it's just that you can't take account of them in all respects. Otherwise, you wouldn't be meeting other criteria that you have to meet.
On what some states have done to try to fend of racial or partisan gerrymandering:
First of all, what has the U.S. Supreme Court said about this? ... About each decade, a case comes up to the U.S. Supreme Court and people say, "will you declare, U.S. Supreme Court, that this violates the U.S. Constitution?" And the U.S. Supreme Court has actually never issued a decision along those lines in such a way that would give a standard for how federal judges would say, "that's too much of a consideration of race" or "that's an allowable amount."
But states can actually take those matters into their own hands and decide these matters. One example: the states of California, Arizona, and several other states have set up independent commissions. And they say, "perhaps this will reduce partisanship, if we draw these not by the legislature doing the job, but by independent commissions." Or the state of Iowa says, "well let's have, essentially, an agency of state government be responsible for doing this, a little bit distant from the legislature."
(Ed.: This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.)