When Democrats and their allies talk about “gerrymandering,” this observer frequently recalls “The Princess Bride.”
There’s one line in particular from the classic 1987 movie that comes to mind. It’s uttered by Inigo Montoya, the sword-wielding outlaw portrayed by Mandy Patinkin.
After a fellow character claims repeatedly that various plot points are “inconceivable,” Montoya offers a quick quip.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The same could be said of those who use the word “gerrymander” to describe any election map drafted by a Republican.
Yes, Republicans can gerrymander election districts. Democrats can do it, too. (North Carolina’s worst example of gerrymandering in the last 30 years almost certainly involved the old 12th Congressional District. Democrats drew that long, snake-shaped marvel in the 1990s to help maximize the number of Democratic congressional victories.)
That doesn’t mean that every election map one dislikes represents a case of gerrymandering.
A Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial earlier this year offered a great example of the misuse of “gerrymandering.” The editorial targeted North Carolina’s Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn.
“His seat in Congress is the inevitable result of election districts so drastically gerrymandered that the lack of competition leads to candidates who are unexamined, embarrassingly unqualified, and lack commitment to the responsibilities of elective representation,” the editorial complained.
Anyone looking at North Carolina’s congressional election map will notice a flaw in the argument. Nothing about Cawthorn’s old 11th District could conceivably be considered gerrymandering. It grouped North Carolina’s 16 western-most counties and part of a 17th.
“The district map minimalizes split counties (only Rutherford is split), preserving communities of interest,” noted Andy Jackson, director of the John Locke Foundation’s Civitas Center for Public Integrity. “It is also as compact as you could expect, given the shape of Western North Carolina. You could make it slightly more compact by removing Avery County and adding more precincts from Rutherford County, but both areas are highly Republican, so the change would not impact congressional races.”
“Western North Carolina has shifted toward Republicans to the point where any reasonably drawn 11th District would favor the Republican candidate in the general election,” Jackson wrote.
Cue Inigo Montoya.
That fictional character’s line about misused language came to mind again within days of the misguided editorial. This time a Democratic state senator triggered the reference.
“Other than being a stealth 8-5 gerrymander, what aspects of the current N.C. congressional map do you find problematic,” asked Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, in a tweet. The 8-5 ratio referenced the fact that voters elected eight Republicans and five Democrats in 2020 to represent North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives.
For Clark’s description of a “stealth gerrymander” to be true, Republican mapmakers would have had to manipulate district lines in unusual ways. Their handiwork would have given them an unexpected advantage.
That didn’t happen.
Don’t take Republicans’ word for it. Don’t take my word. Read instead the words of Duke math professor Jonathan Mattingly, who has testified on Democrats’ behalf in redistricting lawsuits. During an online presentation in July, Mattingly estimated how maps free from gerrymandering would affect Democratic representation. “Somewhere between five and six Democrats is pretty typical,” he said.
Voters actually elected five Democrats last year. Had 8th District challenger Patricia Timmons-Goodson flipped 12,500 votes — or convinced 25,000 Democratic nonvoters to head to the polls — her party would have won a sixth seat.
“You don’t expect to see over 50% of the seats go to the Democrats,” Mattingly said in his online presentation. “That’s just a fact of the structure of our election system. If you don’t like it, you should have a different conversation, but that’s not gerrymandering.”
Keep in mind that the map that helped generate an 8-5 Republican edge in the current congressional delegation replaced an earlier map thrown out by the courts. That map had allowed Republicans to secure a 10-3 advantage in prior elections.
Flipping two congressional seats, with a realistic shot at a third, must not have been enough for Clark and other Democratic critics. Rather than settle for “pretty typical” results, they craved more.
“It’s yet more evidence that Democratic legislators will say any map that doesn’t help them win is a ‘gerrymander,’ even though their own redistricting experts say the opposite,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, co-chairman of the Senate’s redistricting committee.
Now that lawmakers have approved new maps for the 2022 election, Democrats and their allies are recycling familiar critiques about “gerrymandering.” The arguments haven’t changed much since Republicans started drawing election maps a decade ago. Critics ignore recent changes in the redistricting process that have increased transparency and limited opportunities for backroom shenanigans.
Paraphrasing Inigo Montoya: They keep using the word “gerrymandering,” but I do not think it means what they think it means.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.