Coalition wants changes to district-drawing

lbonner@newsobserver.comDecember 7, 2013 

  • If you go:

    What: NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform

    When: 7-8:30 p.m. Wednesday

    Where: Apex Community Center, 53 Hunter St., Apex

— A coalition of groups is trying to take the politics out of the most political activity in state government: drawing legislative and congressional districts.

The latest effort to end gerrymandering comes from groups representing organizations as diverse as the John Locke Foundation and the NC Policy Watch. The NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform is holding community meetings across the state – the next will be Wednesday night in Apex – to drum up support for a big change that would likely lead to more legislative and congressional races.

Efforts to cut ties between legislators and political mapmaking have been going on for years. But this is the first community campaign on the issue, said Jane Pinsky, the coalition’s director. Organizers hope to build enough support for nonpartisan redistricting to get a bill passed calling for a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot, she said.

Every 10 years, the legislature redraws boundaries for 120 state House districts, 50 state Senate districts and the state’s U.S. House districts. The lines are redrawn after every census to account for changes in population. All House districts should have about the same number of people to comply with federal “one person, one vote” mandates. The same goes for Congressional districts and Senate districts.

But redistricting in North Carolina and most other states takes on a political bent that has as much to do with helping incumbents and holding on to political power as it does re-balancing the population. That leads to the party in power drawing lines that make it more likely that they will hold majorities until the next redistricting.

Only a relative handful of legislative districts are competitive, and only one of 13 North Carolina congressional contests last year was close: the 7th District race between Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre and Republican challenger David Rouzer.

A bill setting up an independent redistricting commission passed the state House in 2011, but it did not get a hearing in the state Senate. Sixty-one House members signed on to a similar bill last year, but it did not get a hearing. Pinsky said the House didn’t act because members knew the Senate wouldn’t pass it.

Amy Auth, spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said in an email Friday that Senate Republicans may discuss the issue in caucus in 2015, but “it’s premature to speculate.”

Other states, including California and Arizona, have nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions draw district maps.

The North Carolina group wants a system similar to Iowa’s, where nonpartisan legislative staff draw the maps according to federal and state laws and guidelines for compactness – but where incumbency and voter registration statistics wouldn’t matter.

The John Locke Foundation has been a consistent supporter of getting redistricting out of legislators’ hands.

The Locke Foundation isn’t specifically wedded to the legislative staff or an independent commission drawing the districts. Whoever does the job should have to follow specific rules “so that they’re not going to be able to monkey around too much with what the basic data suggests will be the best districts,” said Mitch Kokai, Locke Foundation’s communications director.

Getting legislators to give up the power to draw their own districts has been a tough sell in the state, though, no matter the party in charge.

Kokai said the coalition hopes to soon convince majorities in the House and Senate that changing how districts are drawn is a good idea.

“As a supporter of the idea, I hope they’re right,” he said. “I’m also not holding my breath.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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