Listening to him as he stood on the floor of the State Senate speaking, I wondered whether he believed what he was saying or whether he’d simply decided to spin a tale.
He sounded like a history professor giving a lecture, talking about the new Senate maps, explaining meticulously why those maps were not a gerrymander; he said he’d heard people say Republicans and Democrats should have roughly the same number of seats in the State Senate because Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper had received roughly the same number of votes in the Governor’s race but, he pointed out, those people ignored a simple fact: That Republican candidates for State Senate had received 500,000 more votes than Democratic candidates.
It sounded like, after pouring through election returns, he’d spotted a fact no one else had seen: That a legion of people who had voted for Roy Cooper had also, down ballot, split their tickets and voted to elect Republicans to the State Senate.
Delving deeper into history he laid out a second surprising fact: For years, he said, politicians in North Carolina hadn’t been able to gerrymander because the state Constitution wouldn’t let them split a single county – then in 1981 the Justice Department in Washington decided the State Constitution violated the Voting Rights Act. Which made splitting counties fine. Which opened the door to gerrymandering.
He told how, in 2001, the Democrats, in the worst gerrymander ever, had split 51 counties and how what they’d done was so appalling that a year later, in another case, a state court threw out the Democrats’ districts to put a stop to the foolishness.
Since then, he added, since courts would only let map drawers divide between 10 and 20 counties, the politicians hadn’t been able to do gerrymanders – and he pointed to the Republicans’ latest map as an example: It had only split 12 counties.
Which proved he said, ‘This map is not a political gerrymander.’
Moving on, next, he asked a rhetorical question: So, if it wasn’t due to gerrymandering why did the Democrats lose 70% of state Senate seats? And he gave the answer: North Carolina Democrats had changed into national Democrats. He compared Jim Hunt’s election 20 years ago – when Hunt won 73 counties – to Roy Cooper’s election last year when Cooper only won 28 counties. The Democrats, he said, had collapsed.
It sounded logical: Democrats lost 73% of the counties and 70% of the State Senate seats but, at second glance, one fact he didn’t mention was troubling: Roy Cooper had won. And Democrats had won six of the last seven Governors’ races – which didn’t sound like a party in collapse.
That left his case hanging on that one number: 500,000.
So, that night, retracing his steps I looked through the election returns – and he was right. Republican candidates for State Senate had received 500,000 more votes than Democrats. But that number wasn’t quite what it seemed.
In the 2016 election eleven Republican candidates for State Senate had run unopposed. They were in ‘safe’ Republican Districts. And didn’t have a Democratic opponent. Those 11 Republicans received 746,000 votes to the Democrats’ none and they were the reason Republican candidates for State Senate received half a million more votes than Democrats.
Finally, looking back, there was one even simpler test that would have proven whether Phil Berger’s story about his new maps was right – I’m surprised no Democratic Senator used it. All it would have taken was, say, Dan Blue standing up and asking Phil at the end of his speech: Phil, what did you tell Tom Hoeffler when you paid him $50,000 to draw these Senate Districts? Did you tell him: I don’t care who gets elected? Or did you tell him: Tom, your job is to draw as many districts as you can to elect Republicans?