Is North Carolina A Fully-Functioning Democracy?

Jan 5, 2017

A new report from the Electoral Integrity Project, based at Harvard University and the University of Sydney, indicates that North Carolina can no longer be considered a functioning democracy. 

The report looks at a range of indicators from each stage in the election process, including voter registration and voter districting. It gives North Carolina an overall score of 58 out of 100, placing it among pseudo-democracies and authoritarian states.

One of the project's co-founders analyzed the report in a recent op-ed published in the News & Observer. He received lots of response, criticism, and a number of vitriolic comments. Host Frank Stasio discusses the article, and response with its author, Andrew Reynolds, professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Interview Highlights:

On the Electoral Integrity Project scoring North Carolina 58 out of 100 for the 2016 election
I felt that there was a question about democracy atrophying in our state. There was a worry that a lot of things were combining together to make us less of a democracy, so I wanted to gather some indicators. And one of those indicators was the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) score for North Carolina which was particularly bad on districting and particularly bad on the registration of the entire population and the access to the vote for majorities and minorities. But then I also sort of triangulated that with other indicators-basically looking at what the courts had done. 

On why the EIP score and other metrics matter
I thought that if you looked at all of those indicators what you saw was Carolina being a pseudo-democracy, a semi-democracy, an imperfect democracy… but a democracy that was headed in the wrong direction [...]. We were getting to a point where power was no longer entirely dependent on the voters, and the wielding of power was no longer that classic contract between the voters and the representatives...there was too much of a detachment there.

On why he chose to focus on North Carolina
I think Carolina is interesting in that its emblematic of many of the challenges that face American politics today. It is not unique. But Carolina’s atrophying democracy, Carolina’s breakdown in political discourse, Carolina’s position at the battlefront of civil rights historically, both in race and ethnicity, and now in LGBT politics makes Carolina a very interesting, demonstrative case about what happens and how things can be improved and change. 

On the viral response to the article
It has been fascinating because the response was huge, and it was very emotional. And initially it was overwhelmingly positive.. [...] four to five days into the viral outbreak it switched over to being much more negative than positive, and much more abusive and threatening around a couple of significant trends [...]all of the complaints about the analysis of democracy are linked up with other cultural fault lines in society, and that to me has been fascinating. 

On the critique of his op-ed by political science professor Andrew Gelman
I think that was something of a red herring [...] it wasn’t really focusing on the issue of Carolina. I mean I would love to have a discussion about how strong Carolina’s institutions are, how satisfied voters feel with their state house and their representatives.

On the significance of the term democracy to everyday people
My experience in the rest of the world was that you can get a large section of society that is not necessarily altruistic but looks at the long game. The long game is not in two or four years time...the long game is in 20 or 30 years time. And you need to think about how the state functions above and beyond your party’s capacity to win on any given day. And I found it interesting that there are a couple of Republican state house members who very, to their credit, have said they believe in nonpartisan districting because they are North Carolinians first and Republicans second. And I think that that would benefit a lot of the political actors in this state to think about not their ability to win in November but their ability to have a productive, happy, healthful state in the longer period.

On the relationship between a viral moment and sustained conversation
I would hope that our discussions about improving democracy in Carolina continue on in a civil and inclusive way. I don’t know what’s going to happen because we are leading up to another election process, but I hope that there is a degree of bipartisan discussion at least around these questions. And my biggest fear is that the marketplace of ideas- that public town square discussion- has almost declined to being nonexistent in North Carolina.