Of vote totals and majorities

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 10, 2013

RALEIGH — A decade or so ago, then-state Rep. Sam Ellis, a Wake County Republican, would occasionally hawk some statistics that he argued were evidence that voter preferences were not reflected in the make-up of the North Carolina General Assembly.
At that time, Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly, and Republicans were none too happy about that fact.
The numbers basically showed that Democrats controlled more seats in the House and Senate than the percentage of votes which they received in the previous election. Ellis saw the comparison as proof that legislative Democrats’ use of artful lines on legislative district maps had allowed them to keep seats to which they were not entitled.
Recently, a group called the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform released similar findings.

An analysis by the organization showed that, in 1992, after Democrats had drawn a new set of legislative lines, they received 52 percent of all votes received by state House candidates but controlled 67 percent of the seats. In the Senate, following that same year’s election, Democrats received 55 percent of the votes but held 78 percent of the seats.
Flash forward 20 years, with Republicans controlling the legislature and drawing the lines used in the 2012 elections, and the disparity between votes and seats has flipped the other way.
Today, Republicans hold 64 percent of seats in the state House, but received only 54 percent of the total vote. In the Senate, the GOP makes up 66 percent of the chamber after an election that saw them take only 50 percent of the vote.
The numbers, of course, are meant to suggest that lawmakers — 20 years ago and today — are thwarting the will of the people with gerrymandered district lines designed to give one political party power over another.
That may be the case, but the numbers in and of themselves represent a fairly simplistic look at the issue.

A lot of variables go into legislative elections where 170 seats are decided.
In any single election year, some candidates from both parties face no general election opposition, which will effect overall voting totals.
Also, some legislative districts in parts of the state, no matter who draws the lines, are almost destined to be non-competitive. Urban, minority leaning districts will almost always vote heavily Democratic; the foothills districts west of Greensboro have been Republican friendly for years.
Rates of incumbency also skew the numbers.
Those variables do not change the larger point: The parties in power in North Carolina are and have been designing legislative districts that have everything to do with giving them an advantage and little to do with keeping communities in tact or following traditional boundaries.
In the process, more districts become “safe” for both parties, elections are decided in primaries, more candidates representing the political extremes are elected, and moderate voters are left with little representation.
You don’t need the numbers to understand that.

Scott Mooneyham writes columns for Capitol Press Association.