Bipartisan bill would take politics out of redistricting

rchristensen@newsobserver.comApril 10, 2013 

— A bipartisan effort is underway in the legislature to change the way North Carolina draws its congressional and legislative lines, creating districts based more on geography and compactness rather than on parties, politics and personalities.

A bill introduced this week creates a nonpartisan redistricting system in time for the 2020 U.S. census. The measure has the backing of Republicans such as Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex and Democrats such as Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh.

“We think we have good bipartisan group, and we are trying to get as many people to sign as possible,” Ross said in an interview. “The redistricting process, while always partisan, has gotten even more partisan, and we need to have a process that the public has confidence in.”

A similar bill passed the House two years ago 88-27 with House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, taking the unusual step of voting for it. But the measure died in the Senate.

It comes at a time when redistricting has become increasingly sophisticated, as mapmakers use computer models to slice not only counties, but neighborhoods and precincts to gain political advantage. North Carolina’s current redistricting plan is undergoing a court challenge.

“Everybody does it,” said Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State University. “The Democrats did it when they were in power. The Republicans have now that they are in power. The Republicans have done it much better than the Democrats were ever able to. Part of it is modern technology and the way they can figure it out down to the house.”

Last November’s congressional elections were an indication of the power of redistricting. Although a slight majority of North Carolina voters cast their ballots for Democratic House candidates in November, the delegation sent to Washington had a 9-4 Republican majority.

Republicans had long championed a nonpartisan redistricting panel when they were in the minority, but their passion for reform cooled when they became the majority. The opposite is true for the Democrats, who have a newfound interest in reform.

What makes this legislation politically possible, Greene said, is that it will not take place until the next decade when most of today’s legislators are likely to be retired, and no one can be sure which political party will be in control in 2021 when redistricting next occurs.

“It is almost the perfect scenario for something like this,” Greene said.

Redistricting is conducted after every census, to ensure that each congressional and legislative district has approximately the same number of people. In most of the country, it is a highly partisan exercise, with the party in control of the legislature seeking to both protect incumbents and find advantages for its party.

In some cases, critics charge, lawmakers end up choosing their constituents, rather than the other way around.

Running unopposed

One result of such gerrymandering is that many districts have become so noncompetitive that incumbents no longer even attract challengers, said Bret Laurenz, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.

For example, in 19 of the 50 state Senate seats and 54 of the 120 House seats, the winners faced no major-party opposition last November.

“This bill would go a long way toward trying to get politics out of the process,” Laurenz said.

There are 11 states that that use nonpartisan redistricting commissions or processes.

The proposal would pattern North Carolina’s system after the one in Iowa, which has had nonpartisan redistricting since 1980.

Under the North Carolina proposal, the legislative staff would draw redistricting maps based on population. District lines would be required to be “reasonably compact” and would have to respect political boundaries. “No district shall be drawn for purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent legislator, or member of Congress or other person or group or for the purpose of augmenting or diluting the voting strength of a language or racial minority,” the bills states. The bill exempts requirements under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Under the Iowa law – and under the North Carolina proposal – the legislature could approve or reject three staff plans but could not amend them. If all three plans fail, then redistricting reverts to the normal process.

The process would be overseen by a temporary redistricting commission appointed by the majority and minority leaders of both the state House and Senate.

“The thing about this process is that all of us legislators are taking a risk in this because the people doing the drafting are not supposed to pay attention to incumbency and things like that,” Ross said. “They are supposed to just pay attention to the law.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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