Gerrymandering blocks the path for college students to engage in democracy

My parents moved from the greater New York area to New Hanover County in the summer of 2014. While I’ve only spent a total of eight months in Wilmington since moving, I feel great pride in being able to call it home. It’s a mix of coastline, industry and college campuses; traditional Southern values and a blossoming “hip” scene; areas that exist in pockets throughout the township.

Because of my association with Wilmington, I am tasked with speaking with my representatives from New Hanover County about Common Cause’s forthcoming court case challenging partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina.

This is pretty scary. Not the court case, but the speaking with representatives part. Gerrymandering is a relatively new concept to me. And, as someone who slides, cautiously, feet-first into a situation instead of leaping head-first, I want to build a solid case that includes my personal perspective before speaking with my representatives. Plus, I think I take myself a little too seriously (I’m working on it).

I want to preface the following by saying that these are my own words and thoughts. While Common Cause views gerrymandering as a direct attack on democracy and is specifically working to end it, I do not feel pressured or obligated to share the same views despite interning here.

That being said, here’s what I’ve concluded over the past few weeks of shadowing Bob, Jane, and Co. and examining the districts in New Hanover county: Gerrymandering does challenge the constitutional doctrine of one person one vote; it skews representation to create a legislature that does not act on behalf of the people but, rather, manipulated factions or majorities. As the saying goes, gerrymandering allows the representative to choose their voters instead of vice versa.

This is an issue that directly affects college students in North Carolina. College communities and campuses have been gerrymandered based on the voting or racial makeup of the student body.

Prior to 2016 redistricting, UNC-Wilmington was gerrymandered. While the surrounding area was included in one congressional district, the UNC-W campus alone was fractured off and included in another district. Although UNC-W is not as liberal as UNC-Asheville or UNC-Chapel Hill, it does historically lean liberal.

Specifically selecting the campus area to be included in a conservative district essentially dilutes the voices of liberal students. It ensures that their voices cannot be duly influential — that is, their votes do not hold equal political weight — since the county that they are then included in is too deeply conservative to be affected. Had the UNC-W area been included in the same district as surrounding towns, that district may have turned light blue or purple, instead of pale red.

Amidst the movement to encourage young people to participate in civic life, to get out and vote, and to make their voices heard, gerrymandering provides unconstitutional obstacles. As seen at UNC-W, UNC-Asheville and NC A&T, to name a few, students are not given an equal vote. Their votes are diluted — this time by Republicans but, in the future possibly by Democrats also using gerrymandering for their own political purposes. While the redistricted maps of the 2016 election targeted liberal students, future redistricted maps may target conservative students.

This is not just a Republican or just a Democratic issue: this is a bipartisan issue. One that threatens the agency and legitimacy of college citizens whose right it is to make their voices heard, and heard equally. Right now our voices are not being heard. Or, at the least, are being manipulated to serve a purpose that we cannot control.

Without redistricting reform in North Carolina, attempts to get young people politically engaged and “rock the vote,” though valiant, can never truly be successful.

Mary Rippe is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill and a summer 2017 intern with Common Cause NC.

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