New push launched to end partisan redistricting

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comMay 8, 2014 

Two days after primary elections that left many North Carolina voters with no choice in November, two prominent former mayors launched a new effort to end partisan redistricting.

Former Mayors Richard Vinroot of Charlotte and Charles Meeker of Raleigh announced Thursday the creation of a coalition called “North Carolinians to End Gerrymandering Now.”

“We tell our children to play fair,” Vinroot said at a Charlotte news conference. “This is about playing fair in elections.”

The coalition is the state’s latest effort to push nonpartisan political redistricting. Though Vinroot, a Republican, called it an idea “whose time has come,” it still faces roadblocks in the Republican-led Senate.

Supporters point to primaries that left 46 percent of the state’s 170 legislative seats uncontested this fall. Fewer than 20 legislative races are considered truly competitive.

In Mecklenburg County, nine of 17 legislative seats will be uncontested in the general election. Some others face token opposition.

Many districts discourage competition by tilting strongly to one party or the other.

“Because of gerrymandering, most North Carolinians don’t get the right to vote in legislative races,” said Meeker, a Democrat.

A similar pattern exists in Congress. Only 44 of 435 U.S. House races are genuinely competitive, according to the Cook Political Report. More than 90 percent of incumbents are expected to be re-elected.

Vinroot and Meeker hope to enlist municipal leaders across the state in the effort, as well as former Govs. Jim Hunt, a Democrat who supports the effort, and Jim Martin, a Republican.

“I have a general sympathy for making that change,” Martin said. “That’s born out of all those years Republicans were in the minority.”

Senate opposition

Voting districts currently are drawn every 10 years by the party that controls the General Assembly, usually to their own partisan advantage. Critics say the system not only disenfranchises many voters but contributes to voter apathy and government polarization, since lawmakers are elected by a relatively narrow slice of the electorate.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states now have a redistricting commission that either draws a plan, advises the legislature on drawing one or otherwise serves as a backup.

The new North Carolina coalition hopes to have a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2016; it would take effect after the 2020 census.

North Carolina’s most recent attempt at nonpartisan redistricting came in a 2011 bill that would have delegated remapping to professional staffers and allowed lawmakers to vote the plans up or down.

Supported by conservative and liberal groups alike, the measure passed the House with bipartisan support. Among those voting for it was Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, now his party’s U.S. Senate nominee.

The bill died in the Senate Rules Committee. Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, still doesn’t like the idea.

“I see no reason to put it on the ballot,” Apodaca said Thursday.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican who chaired the Senate’s 2011 redistricting, said districts were drawn according to criteria laid out by courts and upheld by the U.S. Justice Department. Any commission, he said, would be bound by the same criteria.

Rucho faces no opposition after winning Tuesday’s Republican primary.

“Under the circumstances,” he said, “I see no reason to have an independent commission.”

One party’s fault?

Both senators suggest that critics have become more outspoken since Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011.

“My first question is, where was Richard (Vinroot) four years ago? Five? Ten? Twenty,” said Apodaca.

Added Rucho: “Was (Meeker) opposed to it when Democrats were doing it? Did Mr. Meeker come out and speak? I never saw him.”

Like Vinroot, Meeker said the system has been misused by both parties.

“This is not the fault of one party,” Meeker said. “Even though it’s worse now (because of technology), this is not something that originated with Republicans.”

Martin said Republicans could take credit for changing the system.

“We never got anywhere when Democrats were in power,” he said. “Maybe it could be a testimony to the integrity and sense of fair play of Republicans that they would be the ones to make the change.

“We’ll take a decade of retribution, and then let’s get it right.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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