Just before 1:00 a.m. Wednesday, as the contours of the election were becoming clear to those of us who’d stayed awake through the schizophrenic madness, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger blasted out a press release claiming victory.
“North Carolina voters issued a clear mandate to continue Republican policies that are benefitting the workforce, improving schools, and delivering a pro-jobs agenda for families,” they wrote. “We appreciate the strong support of our constituents and look forward to continuing our successful approach to making North Carolina the very best state in the nation.”
The “clear mandate” came in the form of 29 victories (out of 50) in the Senate and 66 (out of 120) in the House. Sure, Democrats had picked up six and nine seats in each respective chamber, and sure, that was enough to crack the Republicans’ supermajority and force Berger and Moore to take Governor Cooper seriously—no more automatic veto overrides, no more easy constitutional amendments. But Republicans still control 58 percent of Senate seats and 55 percent of House seats, and for a supposed blue wave, that wasn’t so bad. Add to it that Republicans had kept ten of the state’s thirteen congressional seats, and Republicans could paint a picture of a reddish state that wants to “continue Republican policies.”
One problem with that narrative: More Tar Heels voted for Democrats than Republicans this year.
In the fifty Senate races Tuesday, a little over 3.63 million residents voted for a Democrat or a Republican. Of them, 50.5 percent—1.83 million—filled in the bubble for the Dem. The House told a similar story: 3.6 million North Carolinians voted for a candidate from one of the two major parties, and 51.2 percent of them sided with the Democrat. Even if you exclude the one district where a Dem ran unopposed, and add to the Republicans’ tally the district where an unaffiliated candidate nearly bested a Democrat, the Dems still eke out a majority—50.8 percent to 49.2 percent.
In the congressional races, Republicans have a somewhat stronger case: They won a majority of the two-party vote, 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent. But there’s a caveat: In the Third Congressional District, incumbent Walter Jones ran unopposed and racked up more than 186,000 votes. If you subtract his total—or even assume the Dems had put up a sacrificial lamb who won 25 percent of the vote—Democrats would have prevailed in the popular vote.
Those aren’t huge majorities; in fact, a one- or two-point margin is less than the generic-ballot polling predicted. But they are majorities nonetheless. And they hardly show the Republicans or their policies as having a clear mandate.
Instead, Tuesday’s results are a testament to how thoroughly the odds are stacked in the NCGOP’s favor.
This issue is hardly unique to North Carolina, of course. In Tuesday’s U.S. House elections, Democrats appear to have won the cumulative popular vote by somewhere between 5.3 and 6.9 percentage points and—while some votes are still being counted and both the final numbers and a few races might change—will likely walk away with about a twenty-three seat majority, a gain of thirty-six seats.
That’s a good result for Team Blue—but, as research specialist William T. Adler of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project wrote in The New York Times: “The midterms saw a ‘blue wave’ of Democratic support, with the party gaining at least 26 House seats and winning the popular vote by seven points. While it was a significant victory that gave control of the House to the Democrats, they could have won even more seats if not for gerrymanders—carefully manipulated district maps that have given Republicans a substantial advantage in House elections since 2012. Particularly in four states—Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Texas—Democratic candidates gained support from voters relative to 2016, but gained relatively few seats.”
In 2014—a red wave—Republicans won 52 percent of the popular vote, about what the Dems are on track to win this year, but claimed a fifty-nine-seat majority. In 2012, Democrats won a half-million more votes than Republicans—a roughly 0.3 percentage-point victory—but Republicans claimed a thirty-three-seat majority, a larger advantage than Democrats will have following their nearly seven-point margin.
That election was the first taken place under new district maps, drawn by legislators elected in 2010. In all but one of the seventeen states where Republicans ran the redistricting process, the Democrats’ popular votes far outpaced the number of House seats they won. In North Carolina that year, while 49 percent of voters backed President Obama, just four of the thirteen House seats went to Democrats.
There’s also the more ingrained problem of the U.S. Senate, a profoundly undemocratic body where Republicans’ advantage in white, rural, sparsely populated states has enabled them to, for instance, ram through Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court despite the senators in opposition representing 56 percent of the population. This disparity is only going to get worse: By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in just fifteen states, meaning 30 percent of Americans—who will be whiter, more rural, and more conservative than the nation at large—will select 70 percent of the U.S. Senate.
To assume this inequality is a product of a well-reasoned design rather than a vestige of a desperate political compromise betrays a naivete about the Constitutional Convention’s deliberations. The founders could never have contemplated a state like California, with forty million souls, nor one whose population outstrips that of another state (Wyoming) by a factor of sixty-five. But we’re stuck with it: Changing this structure would require small states to forfeit their power, and that’s not happening.
Even so, we should recognize that Republican power is built on a facade of popular support: The Republican president decisively lost the popular vote (and won the White House through yet another anachronism that sprung from Philadelphia in 1787); the Republican Senate, even after GOP gains this year, will likely represent a minority of the country’s population; the Republican share of the House, for much the last decade, has been consistently larger than its share of the vote.
The upshot of Tuesday’s results is that the House, at least, is approaching something like equilibrium: Democrats will win about 53 percent of seats, which more or less syncs up with their share of the popular vote. But for Democrats who’ve watched Republicans dominate Washington politics despite their minority position, that’s a hollow consolation.
And for North Carolina Democrats, who’ve watched court after court after court strike down Republican congressional and legislative districts as unconstitutional racial and partisan gerrymanders, it’s an even less satisfying result. From looking at election data, it’s obvious that gerrymanders—declared unconstitutional by a federal court last year, albeit too late to be changed ahead of the election—saved George Holding in the Second Congressional District and Mark Harris in the Ninth.
Holding, whose district touches the outskirts of Wake County—basically, the Republican-friendly suburbs and exurbs—along with five rural counties to its east, won by fewer than twenty thousand votes. If the Second Congressional District, which encircles Raleigh, included just a piece of the city’s urban core that is now assigned to the Fourth District—which Democrat David Price won by 162,000 votes (a 72–24 margin) without lifting a finger—Linda Coleman would be the area’s representative. It’s the same story in the Ninth District, which Harris won by fewer than two thousand votes. The Ninth District shares Mecklenburg County with the Twelfth, which Democrat Alma Adams won by 138,000 votes.
Both districts were built explicitly to protect Republicans, and they delivered. Had Coleman and Dan McCready won, North Carolina’s congressional delegation would have split 8–5—not quite proportional to the popular vote, but less glaring a disparity. And though a special master redrew some of North Carolina’s legislative districts last year, the Republicans still have a built-in advantage—which is how they secured solid majorities in both the state House and Senate despite losing the popular vote.
The system is (to use one of the president’s favorite words) rigged—by Republicans, for Republicans. And so any Republican talk of a “clear mandate” should be ignored. This is a state whose legislature is functioning under minority rule.
To be clear, there’s more at work here than gerrymandering. As big an issue is self-sorting— meaning, Democrats cluster in urban centers, while Republicans sprawl out in suburban and rural areas. In fact, as I’ve written before, it would actually be difficult to draw districts that both favor Democrats and make any sort of sense. There are other reasons, too, that Republicans maintained their lock on Jones Street while losing the popular vote: Democrats were able to attract and fund quality candidates up and down the ballot this year, even in districts that were never really in play. Those candidates might not have won, but they were blown out by narrower margins than they might otherwise have been. The inverse is true for Republicans—sensing a wave, they rolled over in deep-blue districts and let Democrats run up the score.
Both of those factors contributed to the popular vote/representation imbalance, both in the General Assembly and the congressional delegation. But that doesn’t obviate the fact that North Carolina has a fundamental democracy problem, or that redistricting reform—such as a current proposal in the legislature to hand over redistricting power to an independent commission—would be a good first step toward a more equitable system.
Of course, that measure is unlikely to see daylight unless and until Phil Berger and Tim Moore see a real possibility that Democrats could retake the General Assembly in 2020 and draw their own partisan lines in 2021. But from their perspective, the GOP majorities already weathered one blue wave pretty easily; with the current districts, Democrats are unlikely to dethrone them.
But what if those districts change before the next election?
With Anita Earls’s victory, the N.C. Supreme Court is now 5–2 Democratic, and Earls has fought racial gerrymanders for years. It’s entirely plausible that, as Pennsylvania’s high court did, the state Supreme Court could reject boundaries drawn with partisan—and not just racial—motivations and order the legislature to redraw them under the court’s supervision. That, in turn, could give Democrats a shot at winning the General Assembly two years from now.
This scenario, however, is more a temporary fix than a permanent solution to North Carolina’s democracy problem. In power, Democrats—despite their current, self-serving anti-gerrymandering posturing—would surely be tempted to do just as their Republican counterparts did in 2011, and draw lines that solidify their advantage like they did the last time they were in charge.
The permanent solution is to, insofar as is possible, remove politics from the process and prevent self-interested politicians from selecting their voters, rather than the other way around. An independent commission—like the ones that already exist in six states and passed overwhelmingly in Michigan earlier this week—wouldn’t be perfect. While some research shows that members of Congress whose districts are drawn by independent commissions are less prone to partisan behavior—an indication that the districts are fairer and force politicians to consider the views of people from outside their own party—other research suggests that such commissions aren’t immune from political considerations and protect incumbents nearly as much as legislatures do.
But in North Carolina, where the democracy problem is particularly acute and the legislature’s gerrymanders have been particularly aggressive, it’s worth a try.