Gerrymandering is teaching high schoolers not to trust their government

The author at the North Carolina General Assembly. Photo credit 

Teenagers have incredibly well-refined bullshit detectors. They’re old enough that they’ve shed most (sometimes too much) of their pre-teen naivete and unearned goodwill and replaced it with (sometimes too much) healthy cynicism. They’re young enough, too, that their edges are still rough enough to catch on the things the rest of us have (through practice and patience and thought of self-preservation) learned to let ride. This is especially true of the actions of adults and authority figures, whose general, best-practices proscriptions make little sense to the hyper-local teenage world.

Teaching high school civics means I’m watching this in real-time: the daily, the bewilderment and open disdain for things that, to them, just don’t smell right. National and international news provides plenty of obvious opportunities for this: Mass shootings in Orlando, terrorist attacks in Paris, North Carolina’s House Bill 2, a presidential candidate insulting a federal judge for the color of his skin. There are other things too, less obvious and hidden behind the neutral camouflage of government procedure: The filibuster, the electoral college, the Constitution’s ⅗ clause, and gerrymandering.

A month before the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) met in a now world-famous special session to overturn a Charlotte ordinance that required transgender individuals be allowed use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, and before they passed their own new law, House Bill 2, there was another NCGA special session. This one was about the much less polarizing subject of congressional redistricting and a federal court challenge to gerrymandered NC districts.

On Thursday, February 18th, late in the evening, the North Carolina House Redistricting Committee released a new set of congressional voting district maps for the state. That same night, they announced the public was free to come for comment between 9 and 10 am the next day—before the maps would pass in the House and the Senate a few hours later.

So a little before 9 am on Friday, I showed up to Raleigh’s Legislative Office Building with 27 high schoolers to see what we could see of democracy in action. Before I walked sleepy teenagers up five flights of stairs, I ran ahead to scope things out for myself. Upstairs, outside Room 643, where the hearing was held, some ushers and the Sergeant-at-Arms milled around by the door.

I introduced myself: Hi, I’m a high school civics teacher in Raleigh. We walked here to see the meeting. Is there room for 27 students and two teachers in there?

Sergeant-At-Arms: Yes, of course, bring ‘em on. And then: It’ll look good on TV.

So back down five floors, then back up, this time with charges in tow, to sit in swinging movie theater seats at the back of a large White room. Along the left wall, multi-colored district maps stretched six feet across and four feet high. Along the right, the TV cameras that we would look good on. In between, the assembled members of the House Redistricting Committee, scattered around past a low wall with a ‘Representatives Only’ sign in laminated yellow.

At issue were North Carolina’s congressional voting districts, specifically the 1st and 12th districts, drawn after the 2010 census. On Feb. 5 a three-judge panel from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case called Harris v. McCrory, had ruled that both had taken race too much into account and thus were in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. The Court gave the NCGA two weeks to redraw the districts and submit them to the panel for review, and today was Feb. 19, deadline day.

North Carolina's 2011 US Congressional districts

The Republican majority, which had drawn the maps, had more than enough votes to pass them (or, really, to pass anything, as the second special session of 2016 would show not just my 27 students but the whole world). But if for whatever reason the maps weren’t approved by the end of the day, the Court could draw their own, or delay elections in those districts until new ones were approved. NCGA Republicans had appealed to the Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the ruling until the next election, and it had looked likely that the stay would be granted, until a few days before when Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly, his hands folded in sleep at a Texas resort-ranch. Today, while Legislators gathered for the second day of a special session called by the Governor and Antonin Scalia’s body lay in state at the Supreme Court Building, the stay request seemed itself to have been put on hold, maybe the first but definitely not the last piece of business to join the logjam created by an 8-person court.

After an hour and a half with the House Redistricting Committee, we would sit quietly in similar circumstances for the rest of the day. Next, an hour or so in the Senate gallery, most of which was recess (literally: some students went outside and caroused on the really very nice wrap-around balcony at the legislative building). Then close to two hours in the House galleries, where the new voting maps were compared by one House Democrat to “poopie diapers.” We saw, and heard, (the Aye’s have it) votes in both bodies to approve the new district maps and the dispatching of a special messenger to take them to the Governor. We were recognized (with applause) in all three chambers, were once used as a political football by the chair of the redistricting committee (the students here come from an arts school, and drawing these maps is more of an art than a science, says a committee member), and afterwards ate hot dogs on the NCGA steps and talked about the perils and pitfalls of gerrymandering.

That story, and North Carolina’s recent part in it, goes like this:

In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Gerry Elbridge signed a bill redrawing state senate districts that benefited his own party, the Democratic-Republicans. The papers thought one of the new districts looked like a salamander, and so the portmanteau ‘Gerrymander’ entered the lexicon. This makes it an old word, but not as old as the practice itself. In 1788, Patrick Henry convinced Virginia to redraw its fifth congressional district to force his political enemy James Madison to run against James Monroe (give me liberty or give me a safe congressional district!). This makes the strategic redrawing of political districts older than the ratified Constitution.

Gerrymandering typically takes one of two forms: packing, and anchoring (sometimes also called cracking).

Packing means taking like voters and squeezing them all into the same voting district, sacrificing that district to your opponent by a large margin but securing for yourself several more narrow electoral victories in adjoining districts.

Anchoring is taking an urban area that is large enough on its own to be a separate district and splitting it into several separate districts, each one extending far enough into a more rural area so that rural voters outnumber urban. In this way a large city might not elect any single representative on its own, but instead fall just short in two or three separate contests.

If this sounds rigged, it is. If this sounds illegal, it isn’t. Gerrymandering performed to create a partisan advantage is perfectly legal at both the federal level and in the state of North Carolina. It only becomes illegal when a partisan gerrymander becomes a racial gerrymander, one that is shown in court to purposefully dilute the influence of a particular protected class of people, most often Black voters.

The end of Reconstruction and the advent of the Jim Crow South saw gerrymandering join poll taxes and literacy tests in the disenfranchisement toolbox of the segregationist. By packing Black voters into one district or by dividing urban areas with a high population of Black voters into several districts, racial gerrymandering meant that even in cases where Black Americans could get their names on the registered voting rolls in significant numbers, their influence was diluted or dissipated completely; the uphill climb to elect Black candidates remained Sisyphean.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) passed in 1965 to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th amendments. Two parts of the VRA—Sections 2 and 4(b) and 5—took on racial gerrymandering directly.

Section 2 applied to the whole country, and made it illegal to draw voting districts that denied minority voters an equal right to “participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” States worked around this by drawing majority-minority districts: districts that elected Black representatives by overwhelming margins but that were packed with Black voters in a way that followed no internal logic. This includes the old NC 12th district, which snaked along the I-85 corridor and included the predominantly Black parts of both Charlotte and Greensboro, cities 90 miles apart.

Section 4(b) and Section 5 focused on the parts of the country where disenfranchisement was most a problem. 4(b) created a ‘coverage formula’ that identified specific jurisdictions, including all of the Deep South, Virginia, and about half of the counties in North Carolina, as having a history of discriminatory voting practices (interestingly, because the formula was based on percentages of registered voters, all of Alaska and several towns in Vermont were also covered under Section 4(b)). These areas were then subject to Section 5, which created a ‘pre-clearance’ requirement that mandated federal approval from the Courts or the Department of Justice before making any changes to election laws, including district maps. Covered jurisdiction thus had to prove that any proposed changes were not discriminatory, in an attempt to, according to Chief Justice Earl Warren, “shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victim.”

North Carolina's redrawn 2016 US Congressional districts

Voting districts are redrawn after each census, to keep up with shifts in population. In North Carolina (and in most states) these maps are drawn and approved by the state legislature. Per the Voting Rights Act, maps drawn by the NCGA were pre-cleared by the Department Of Justice and were used in the 2012 US House elections. With a Republican-controlled state legislature for the first time in state history, these maps would turn an 8-5 Democratic majority into a 9-4 (and, in 2014, a 10-3) Republican advantage without any major change in state voting patterns.

In June of 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to strike down section 4(b) of the VRA, the part that determined which states were subject to an extra layer of review. The lifting of the preclearance requirement, though, did not lift the prohibition on racial gerrymandering overall. On October 24, 2013, David Harris and Christine Bowser filed a case against Governor Pat McCrory in U.S. District Court alleging that two of North Carolina’s voting districts—the 1st and the 12th--were racial gerrymanders. The court eventually agreed, writing that though states can use race as a factor in redistricting, making race the primary factor in the drawing of district lines at the exclusion of other criteria is a violation of 14th amendment protections.

The court thus ordered on Feb. 5 that the state redraw the 1st and 12th districts before Feb. 19.

In a show of procrastination that really set a bad example for my students, the Governor called a special session of the NCGA to approve new maps two days before that deadline. These maps had been commissioned two days earlier by the joint redistricting committee and drawn by a mysterious GOP redistricting guru, Dr. Tom Hofeller. Hofeller also drew the maps that the court had thrown out, and has drawn maps for Republican legislatures across the country. To avoid potential incrimination, he refuses to communicate with legislators about redistricting in writing and has never been made available to the democratic members of the redistricting committee for questioning.

The new maps passed through the committee meeting that morning along partisan lines, and then after some debate did the same in both the Senate and the House. The House debate, which went on the longest, was less like a debate and more like a cross-examination. House Democrats probed Republican leadership on the role race played in the drawing of the latest round of maps. The biggest point of contention, argued the Democrats, was that in an attempt to avoid taking race too much into account, the maps had swung entirely in the other direction. What resulted was a goldilocks violation of the VRA that took race too little into account and spread Black voters out too much, potentially preventing them the right to elect a ‘candidate of their choice’ in certain districts. On June 2, the same three-judge panel that threw out the old maps upheld the new, calling that goldilocks argument too ‘vague,’ and holding with a general precedent where courts have more or less permitted partisan redistricting.

Gerrymandering is like pointillism in reverse, the kind of opaque political inside baseball that only begins to make sense when you stand two inches away and stare from a position on, say, the floor of the NC Senate Chamber. From that vantage point, it seems like less a public sin and more a natural part of the process. For one, drawing voting districts is hard: In another redistricting case, a circuit court judge called it possibly “the most difficult task a legislative body ever undertakes.” Lawmakers, who are usually not themselves cartographers, have to draw districts of equal size that account for compactness, contiguity, common interests, and political boundaries, and these maps have to be redrawn after every census. These are just the neutral criteria. Past these, there’s partisan advantage to account for. In NC, the right maps mean a state that votes roughly 50/50 between the two parties sends ten Republicans and three democrats to the U.S. House.

This gives politicians of any stripe the two main ingredients for political exploitation: the chance to gain disproportionate power—and the cover to do so. If the maps have to redrawn anyways, and if they’ll end up looking funny no matter what, and if drawing them a certain funny way rather than another funny way doubles your party’s representation, that’s a hard opportunity to pass up. Who’s going to complain? If you’re a North Carolina Democrat, you can’t exactly call up the Republican majority and withdraw your support until they fix the maps. They didn’t have your support in the first place, and for better reasons than this. If you’re a North Carolina Republican, what do you say? “Hi, Congressperson, I’m upset about your making my party of choice more powerful and influential.” There’s no real political angle to make this a serious campaign issue that could cost someone an election, and so from a practical, in-the-room perspective, it’s hard to avoid the temptation when the stakes are so high and the cost so low. After enough of this, if you’re a congressperson, it just becomes what is done.

I’ve found in my students a fresh, unwilted idealism that rejects, intuitively and forcefully, practical arguments like this that try to explain away gerrymandering. When I put the maps thrown out by the courts in front of them earlier this year, the average reaction was a disgust and indignation that went above concerns of equity or justice or democratic principle and straight to a simple “this just isn’t right.” From there, most settled down into a bemused disillusionment, a place teenagers occupy comfortably, a place that says, “well, adults regularly do things that seem to make no sense. We expect arbitrary rules and arbitrary rigidity—so this is really no surprise at all..” I have found no way to shake them from that position, and arguments about inevitability or the nuance of local politics or the rules of the game go nowhere.

They push back with good reason—because whether or not biased redistricting ends up feeling practical, they’re right—it’s still biased. Gerrymandering, historically, is to blame for mass disenfranchisement of minority groups, particularly Black Americans in the South. It’s to blame for disproportionate representation of the party that holds local power. It’s to blame for mapping the competition out of House races and for shifting electoral import from general elections to primaries, creating incumbents that aren’t accountable to any but the most extreme left or right of their constituency. Because of all this, it is at least partially to blame for a Congress that has reached historic levels of dysfunction.

All of that is bad, and we ought to fix it. But behind it, there’s something even more pernicious. The bent-backwards process of making twisted district maps leaves folks jaded. It disillusions the electorate before they’re even the electorate—before they can even drive. Voting is something that young people ought to understand as the deliberate bedrock of civic duty. Purpose-built districts take that duty, especially at the local level, and make it at best a formality and at worst a farce. It teaches a world where those in power choose their subjects, rather than the other way around. It makes the representative in representative democracy a contingency, an interchangeable part that can be drawn out of existence.

I notice this in myself, too, as a teacher. I felt that our field trip to the General Assembly was a success because I felt my students saw that local politics in 2016 share certain characteristics with national politics in 2016: an inability to compromise, a no man’s land between partisan lines, deception and a certain penchant for demagoguery, ample lip service, and most of all a basic absurdity that fails any commonsense litmus test. The proceedings of the NCGA during that special session, proceedings called to address the State’s violation of basic Constitutional protections, felt more like business as usual than like an ugly aberration.

Afterwards, one of my students summed it up for herself with a simple, flat, “don’t trust the system.” She wasn’t alone in that feeling. When young people learn not to trust the system at the same time they’re learning what the system is, there’s no way to undo one without replacing the other. As long as they’ll have known about politics, they’ll have known it as something not to be trusted. But to show them too much of anything else is dishonest revisionism. To teach them to stay above the fray — to trust in the ballot box as the truest expression of political will — would be disingenuous. I feel compelled to show my students the truest version of the world I can find and express. I just wish I could find a more encouraging truth.