Patrick Gannon: Winning by landslides – or by default

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 28, 2015

RALEIGH – Of the 11 African-Americans elected to the state Senate last year, eight took their seats with no opposition last November. The remaining three won by garnering an average of 71 percent of the votes against opponents.

No close contests in Senate districts represented by African-Americans. Not one.

In the House, the results for black candidates also were lopsided. Of the 23 African-Americans in the 120-member chamber, 16 took their seats for the two-year session because no other names appeared on the ballots with them in November. The other seven won by getting an average of nearly 78 percent of the votes. In other words, all but one black House member who faced opposition won by landslide.

Rep. Robert Reives II, of Sanford, won the closest House race with a black candidate, garnering 56 percent of the votes against a Republican. After that, it was Howard Hunter III, of Ahoskie, who took 69 percent in his race. That’s not close.

By the way, all African-Americans in the General Assembly are Democrats.

Why did all but one of the 34 African-Americans elected to the House or Senate win by huge margins or not have an opponent last November? At least in part, it’s because the districts they represent are skewed heavily toward Democratic or black candidates because of the way the Republican General Assembly drew them through the redistricting process in 2011.

The N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, a Raleigh-based nonpartisan political research organization, rates legislative districts based on historical voting trends to show the degree to which voters in particular districts have favored Republican or Democratic candidates in past elections.

Before the 2014 elections, the group rated all 11 Senate districts now represented by African-Americans as “strong Democratic.” (That pretty much means it would take a miracle for a Republican to win there). In the House, the FreeEnterprise Foundation ranked all but one of the districts now represented by black legislators as “strong Democratic.”

Guess which one wasn’t? Yes, it was Reives’ district, which the foundation determined “leans Democratic.”

This explains in part why Republicans didn’t challenge many of the black candidates. Why would anyone want to spend time and money on a race they’re almost sure to lose because of the makeup of the district’s voters?

Whether any of those districts are skewed too heavily toward African-Americans is a question for North Carolina’s highest court. The U.S. Supreme Court recently informed the N.C. Supreme Court that it must consider again whether Republicans relied too much on race in drawing the maps in 2011. Originally, the N.C. Supreme Court sided with the map-drawers.

The legal arguments from each side are complicated.

Among the questions is whether or not the General Assembly unfairly stacked minorities into certain districts to dilute their influence elsewhere, thus making life easier for Republican candidates.

Republicans who drew the maps claim that they are legal, and the courts ultimately might decide that they’re right.

Then again, maybe something’s not right with the law.

And no matter what happens with the court case, there’s another obvious issue. Because of the lopsided districts, voters in many parts of North Carolina are stuck with the same legislators — or at least the same party — term after term, with little hope of electing someone else.

Hope they’re happy with who they have.

Patrick Gannon writes columns for Capitol Press Association.