Uncontested seats show power of the GOP-held legislature

Uncontested Seats in the N.C. General Assembly

Election Year Office Democrat Seats Republican Seats
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By Lindsay Carbonell

In the past decade, North Carolina voters have had less and less power over who represents them in the state legislature.

From 2000 to 2012, the number of uncontested seats — those guaranteed to one candidate before voting even begins — in the N.C. General Assembly increased by 47.3 percent.

In 2000, there were a total of 41 uncontested seats, but that number rose to 67 in 2012. The party proportion of uncontested seats was similar until 2010.

With 40 uncontested GOP seats to 12 uncontested Democrat seats in the redistricting year of 2010, it’s no surprise that the GOP won the supermajority of the NCGA — and then immediately redistricted.

“We learn in fifth grade about checks and balances in our system and at this point in North Carolina there just about are no checks and balances,” said Tom Jenson, spokesperson from the left-leaning nonprofit Public Policy Polling.

Gerrymandering, the practice of redrawing districts to favor specific parties, has a huge impact on elections in North Carolina. But even if a challenger was willing to run in a gerrymandered district, there are other obstacles that stand in their way.

“These races are becoming more and more expensive,” said Dave Miranda, spokesperson for the N.C. Democratic Party.

But even a decade ago, when gerrymandering was also a part of the political process, there were fewer uncontested seats — so what happened?

A tale of two parties

In 2010, a backlash against Democrats was the catalyst for a pivotal year for Republicans. The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") was the major political issue, and was very unpopular, said Tom Jenson, a spokesperson from the left-leaning nonprofit Public Policy Polling.

“Republicans really put an emphasis, I think, in 2010 to get as many candidates as possible so they weren’t leaving any stone unturned,” Jenson said.

That strategy caused a drop from 40 uncontested Democratic seats in 2008 to just 12 in 2010.

And the polarization between parties only worsened. With national politics driving public opinion, it became the norm to only vote within one's party, Jenson said.

“I don’t think it’s his fault…[but] President Obama is just really polarizing along party lines,” he said. “It’s hard for people to really get past those labels.”

But the lines between parties weren’t the only ones being drawn.

The tentacles of gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is the number one cause of uncontested seats, Jenson said.

The map below shows the most recent redistricted map, which was passed by the NCGA in 2011.

Districts 16, 21, 28 and 32 are some of the more clearly gerrymandered Democratic districts, Jenson said. With the GOP maintaining its supermajority, the Democratic voters are packed into districts to minimize their voting power.

Districts 16, 21, 28 and 32 have "tentacles" that pack the Democratic voters together.

“You can say even before filing deadlines what party is going to win,” Jenson said of the gerrymandered districts.

Since 2012, 28 percent of all of the seats in the NC General Assembly have been uncontested.

Still, over half of voters want to see nonpartisan redistricting processes put in place, and there even seems to be a bipartisan consensus in the NC legislature that agrees, according to PPP.

"Gerrymandering feels as though (the parties) are just rewriting the rules whenever they win," said Matt Plaus, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The path to win

Democrats statewide would have to win the generic legislative ballot by 15 points to gain back control of the legislature, Jenson said.

“There’s almost no world where that could happen,” he said. Democrats are currently only up by 3 points in the ballot.

But for Democrats, the recent events in state and national politics could prove to be the light at the end of the tunnel.

The recent passing of House Bill 2, which limits protections for LGBT people and mandates that transgender people must use the bathroom of their biological sex, has seen incredible backlash.

Companies, artists, and even nations have expressed their opposition to the bill, bringing the conservative NCGA to the national spotlight. Following the passing of HB2, Governor Pat McCrory trailed Democratic opponent Roy Cooper for the first time in 3 months according to PPP. That shift in public opinion could mean bigger wins for the NCDP.

And what may be the Democrats’ biggest hope to flip seats? Donald Trump.

“There’s going to be a lot of people coming out to vote against Trump, and that could put a lot of seats into play,” Miranda said.

Writer's note: The N.C. GOP and Civitas Institute were contacted but could not speak to me before the story deadline.