Win the voteLee Mortimer / December 5, 2015
Democrats looking toward a spirited 2016 presidential campaign should feel upbeat about statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor, council of state and perhaps the U.S. Senate. But the real seat of power in North Carolina is the Republican-dominated General Assembly.
With veto-proof majorities in both chambers, Republicans in the legislature can walk over pretty much anything state executives in either party may do. And facing the most gerrymandered districts in our history, Democrats have all but conceded that Republicans will retain legislative dominance through the current redistricting cycle.
The Raleigh News & Observer recently described the Republican-drawn districts as “so aggressively gerrymandered it would take a pitch-fork rebellion by voters to end the GOP majority.” That’s a gentle way of telling Democrats they have virtually no chance of rolling back lopsided GOP majorities (75-45 and 34-16 in the state House and Senate and 10-3 in our U.S. House delegation).
A small ray of hope is a redistricting ruling the state Supreme Court could issue at any time to redraw some districts to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. But even if ordered to do so, it’s unclear GOP legislators would make more than superficial revisions. That would likely perpetuate a pattern where Democrats win about half the statewide vote but end up with barely a third of the seats.
Democrats haven’t entirely written off legislative gains for 2016. But an alternate strategy would serve to expose gerrymandering and discredit the GOP’s illegitimate hold on power. Rather than try to “win the election,” they should mobilize instead to “win the vote” by ensuring that no district is without a Democratic challenger.
In 2012, Democrats won more votes for Congress both nationally and in our state delegation, but Republicans won undeserved majorities of seats. Producing a larger overall vote than Republicans showed the level of support Democrats command across North Carolina. It was a powerful political talking point in 2012 and could be again this presidential year when turnout favors Democrats.
“Win the vote” dovetails with an initiative by lieutenant governor candidate Holly Jones of Buncombe County. She calls the effort “Crowdsourcing Candidates” and is urging supporters to submit names to fill Democratic ballot lines in every legislative district. “No Republican deserves re-election without a fight,” Jones says on her campaign Web site. “That’s not good for democracy and it’s not good for Democrats.”
Democrats left 28 state House districts and 12 Senate districts uncontested in 2012, compared to 27 House districts and seven Senate districts that Republicans didn’t contest. The vote split across 170 Assembly districts was 48 percent for Democrats and 52 percent for Republicans. If Democrats had contested the 40 districts they left vacant, they would have equaled or surpassed Republicans in the popular vote.
“Win the vote” candidates need not be committed to winning or even to campaigning. In most cases, they will go into it knowing they aren’t going to win. They just need to be willing to have their name on the ballot as a repository for Democratic votes. Each additional ballot name would enable Democrats to add 10,000 to 12,000 votes in a House district and 24,000 to 29,000 votes in a Senate district.
Boosting the Democrats’ popular vote above 50 percent won’t dissuade the Republican legislature from pushing their far-right agenda. But they would at least be blocked from claiming: “The people of North Carolina sent us here to do this.” It would subject everything they do to a legitimacy test, with Democrats able to respond: “No! The people of North Carolina did not send you here, and your ‘majority’ is illegitimate.”
The longer-term strategy would be to mobilize energetic public support to end gerrymandering and demand meaningful redistricting reform for the next decade and beyond. That will be key for Democrats to have any prospect of regaining majorities in Raleigh and Washington.
Lee Mortimer of Durham is an election reform advocate and served on a General Assembly Election Laws Review Commission.