RALEIGH — Even as they debated a voter ID bill Wednesday, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers pushed a potentially farther-reaching change in how North Carolinians vote.
The unusual alliance – representing a majority of House members – touted a bill that would take redistricting out of their hands and give it to an independent commission.
“We are creating the most efficient, forward-looking redistricting process in the U.S.,” said Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican.
Stam made his comments at a news conference flanked by many of the bill’s 61 co-sponsors. The number included many Republicans elected from districts drawn to their advantage by GOP lawmakers.
But the show of strength may not be enough to get the bill through the Senate, where three leaders are poised to give it a cool reception.
“We’ve waited 140 years to have this (redistricting power),” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Henderson County Republican who chairs the influential Rules Committee. “I’m not ready to give away what we fought so hard to get.”
Republican legislative gains in 2010 made it possible for them to draw election districts a year later and build on those gains in 2012.
Last year the GOP gained three congressional seats and now hold nine of the state’s 13. In the General Assembly, the party gained veto-proof, super majorities in the House and Senate. Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer has said only 11 of 120 House seats and three of 50 Senate seats are truly toss-ups.
The House bill is similar to one that passed in 2011 with 88 votes.
Under it, the General Assembly’s nonpartisan professional staff would draw legislative and congressional districts. Lawmakers would vote on their plan. If they reject it, staff would draw another. If two more plans were rejected, lawmakers could draw their own. Iowa has used a similar process since the 1980s.
“The idea is to take out as much as we can of the politics from the redistricting process,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat. Democratic Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh said, “This is about the voters, it shouldn’t be about the politicians.”
Stam introduced a similar bill more than two decades ago when Republicans were in the minority. Asked why Republicans would support the measure now that they’re in the majority, he turned to GOP Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville.
“If it was good government then, it’s good government now,” McGrady said. “We shouldn’t be playing games.”
One Senate Republican said that’s just what Democrats did with “independent” redistricting in California. In 2010 the state put redistricting in the hands of a citizens commission. Last fall, Republicans lost a handful of seats. An investigation by the investigative website ProPublica was headlined “How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission.”
“California had a significant number of protections in their independent redistricting plan that should have ensured a ‘fair’ process, but the Democrats gamed the system,” said Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican who chaired the Senate’s 2011 Redistricting Committee, said he doesn’t think a commission is necessary. Supreme Court rulings at the state and federal levels, he said, have set clear guidelines.
“The law,” he said, “is very clear as it is.”
On Wednesday, Rucho’s redistricting committee waded into other redistricting issues.
The panel approved bills redrawing districts for the Wake and Guilford county school boards, over the objections of both boards and some Democrats.
“Here we go again,” Charlotte Democratic Sen. Malcolm Graham told the committee. “The state of North Carolina, this Assembly, this GOP asserting its will over local government. It is unfair. It is unwarranted.
“It makes the people look at this as a mockery.”