What North Carolina could learn from Iowa on fair districts
Iowa has become a model for how the redistricting process should work, while North Carolina is one of the country’s most gerrymandered – and litigated – states

By Marshall Botvinick
Posted: Oct. 23, 2017
North Carolina would do well to follow Iowa's successful example and implement nonpartisan redistricting.

WILMINGTON – One of the more common arguments against nonpartisan redistricting is that it is unlikely to significantly alter the state of American elections.

This fatalistic view takes the position that other factors, such as the increasing urban/rural divide and geographic sorting, have so polarized the electorate that it is nearly impossible to produce a substantial number of competitive districts.

And while it is true that these phenomena have shrunk the number of competitive districts nationwide, it is still intellectually dishonest to ignore the oversized role partisan gerrymandering plays in shaping our congressional and state legislative elections.

To understand the impact of gerrymandering, it is useful to compare two swing states, North Carolina and Iowa, side by side.

In North Carolina, the redistricting process is an exclusively partisan enterprise. It is controlled by the majority party in the state legislature, and the governor is prohibited from vetoing the maps produced by the legislature. The entire goal of the redistricting process in North Carolina is to maximize the majority party’s advantage.

By contrast, Iowa’s system is entirely nonpartisan and apolitical. Since 1980, Iowa’s maps have been drawn by the Legislative Services Agency, who do their work without receiving any input from elected officials. As a result, Iowa has become a model for how the redistricting process should work while North Carolina has become one of the country’s most gerrymandered, and litigated, states.

To get a sense of just how different North Carolina and Iowa are, I studied election results in both states from 2012 through 2016. I analyzed all races for the U.S. House of Representatives, the state Senate, and the state House of Representatives. Specifically, I wanted to measure the extent to which Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting process yields elections that are more contested, competitive, and equitable than the elections in North Carolina. What I found is that there is no measure by which North Carolina’s process produces a more competitive or fair result.

Contested Elections

The foundation of any democracy is choice. If voters only see one name on the ballot, then they aren’t really participating in democracy. When one of the two major parties fails to contest a seat, it is often because they have no reasonable chance of winning the election.

Uncontested elections are a sign that a party has all but abandoned a district, leaving voters with no meaningful way to express their political preference. Since both parties typically contest races for the U.S. House of Representatives, though Congressman Robert Pittenger (R-09) ran unopposed in North Carolina in 2014, the extent of this problem is best seen by looking at state legislative elections. In general, the more egregious the gerrymander the more likely one is to see large numbers of uncontested races.

In Iowa, 29.3% of races for the state Senate are uncontested by one of the two major political parties. In North Carolina, that number is 38%. Similarly, 38.3% of races for Iowa’s House of Representatives are uncontested while in North Carolina 48.3% of races for the NC House of Representatives are uncontested by one of the two major political parties. Thus, in both cases, North Carolina’s rate of uncontested elections is about 10% higher than Iowa’s.    

Competitive Elections

Just because elections are contested by both parties does not mean that they will be competitive. In general, if a district is consistently decided by less than 5%, it is highly competitive. If it is consistently decided by 5%–10%, it is somewhat competitive. And if it is consistently decided by more than 10%, then it is not competitive.

In other words, if one party repeatedly wins a district by at least 10%, then it is exceptionally difficult for a member of the opposition party to win that seat barring extraordinary circumstances. This matters because without competition there is no political accountability, and without political accountability, politicians are free to vote for an array of irresponsible or self-serving policies.

There are two good ways to measure how competitive a state’s elections are. The first is by finding the average margin of victory across all districts. In Iowa, the average margin of victory in races for the United States House of Representatives is 11.5%. In North Carolina, it is an astounding 25.5%. Slightly smaller gaps can be seen in state legislative elections. In races for the Iowa State Senate, the average margin of victory is 15.1%. In North Carolina, the average margin of victory is 24.6%. Finally, in races for the Iowa House of Representatives, the average margin of victory is 19.7% while in North Carolina the average margin of victory is 23.7%.

The other way to gauge the competitiveness of a state’s elections is to look at the number of races decided by 10% or less. In Iowa, 50% of the races for the U.S. House of Representatives are decided by 10% or less. In North Carolina, however, a meager 7.7% of the races for the U.S. House of Representatives are decided by 10% or less. In effect, this means that nearly the entire North Carolina congressional delegation is guaranteed reelection no matter what they do in office.

While less pronounced, these differences can also be seen at the state legislative level. In Iowa, 28% of races for the State Senate are decided by 10% or less. In North Carolina, it is 10.7%. Similarly, 16.7% of races for the Iowa House of Representatives are decided by less than 10%. In North Carolina, only 11.7% of races for the NC House of Representatives are decided by less than 10%.

Fair Elections

The last, and arguably the most important, barometer of a healthy democracy is fair elections. This means that a party’s vote statewide should roughly correspond to the share of seats won by that party. If Democratic candidates win 55% of the vote across the state, we should expect them to win approximately 55% of the seats. When there is a sharp divergence between a party’s vote share and seat share, it is an indicator that the system is unfair.

In Iowa, the gap between vote share and seat share is quite small. It is a bit inflated in U.S. House elections since Iowa only has four congressional districts (2 lean Republican, 1 leans Democrat, and 1 is a swing district). Thus, the data has been a bit skewed by the GOP’s ability to narrowly hold on to the state’s one swing district in both 2014 and 2016. As a result, Republican candidates for Congress in Iowa have won 52.4% of the vote and 66.7% of the seats, amounting to a 14.3% gap between their vote share and seat share.

On a state level, where Iowa has 50 senate districts and 100 House districts, the gap between vote and seat share is almost nonexistent. In races for the Iowa State Senate, Republican candidates have won 55.2% of the vote and 56% of the seats. In races for the Iowa House of Representatives, Republican candidates have won 52.6% of the vote and 56.3% of the seats.

North Carolina, on the other hand, has an exceptionally large gap between a party’s vote share and its seat share. The Republican Party has won 52.7% of the vote in races for the U.S. House of Representatives, yet it has managed to win 74.4% of the seats. Similarly, the GOP has won 54.2% of the vote and 68% of the seats in races for the North Carolina Senate. And in races for the North Carolina House of Representatives, the Republican Party has won 52.8% of the vote and 62.5% of the seats.

Thus, in both Iowa and North Carolina, Republicans consistently win slightly more than 50% of the vote statewide. In Iowa, that has allowed Republicans to slowly form a small but fragile majority in both legislative chambers. But in North Carolina, that vote share has been good enough to create an unbroken supermajority in both the state Senate and state House of Representatives.

Conclusion

At its core, representative democracy depends on three things: choice, competition, and fairness. When these three elements begin to disappear, democracy is put at risk. Through their nonpartisan approach to redistricting, Iowa has put the interests of voters, not politicians, first.

North Carolina, on the other hand, has done everything possible to minimize electoral competition, accountability, and equity. In a brazen attempt to consolidate political power, North Carolina’s legislature has pursued an approach to redistricting that is both undemocratic and unconstitutional (the latter being affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent unanimous ruling against the state and its gerrymandered maps).

Iowa’s approach works. Its advantages can be seen clearly in the numbers. North Carolina would do well to follow their example and implement nonpartisan redistricting.

Marshall Botvinick is a Lecturer in the Department of Theatre at UNC-Wilmington.


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