Republican leaders have tapped a familiar consultant to help with the drawing of new districts for electing General Assembly members after maps he drew six years ago were found by the federal courts to include illegal racial gerrymanders.
Tom Hofeller, a seasoned GOP mapmaker and a chief architect of the 2011 N.C. maps, is working with legislative leaders again on how to create new districts that will pass muster.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and House redistricting leader, informed a group of legislators on Wednesday of Hofeller’s return to a process that could determine how the state is divided into political districts for the rest of the decade.
Hofeller was profiled in The Atlantic magazine in 2012 in an article titled “The League of Dangerous Mapmakers.”
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When asked at a redistricting committee hearing on Wednesday whether Hofeller would be available to Democrats, Lewis responded: “The short answer is no.”
Lewis did not have as concise an answer when asked by a Democrat at the meeting whether a goal for the Republicans shepherding the map drawing would be to keep the same partisan advantage as the maps with illegal gerrymanders had yielded.
“It will be the perogative of this committee to determine what the criteria are on the drawing of these maps,” Lewis told a room full of legislators, media and others interested in the redistricting process.
“I sincerely hope that the Democrats will engage,” Lewis said. “Help us select the criteria, help us draw these maps.”
The meeting led by Lewis and Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, came on the eve of a federal court hearing scheduled in a case that has lingered for more than two years.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a ruling of three federal judges who found 28 North Carolina legislative districts were drawn illegally to weaken the overall influence of black voters.
The three judges who made that ruling in 2016 – James Wynn, an Obama appointee to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Catherine Eagles, an Obama appointee, and Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee – will returned to a Greensboro courtroom on Thursday to hear what each side has to say about how quickly new districts should be drawn, who should do the drawing and whether new districts can be in place in time for elections this year or next.
The NAACP and other challengers have asked the judges for a quick resolution and advocated for special elections this year. The next scheduled legislative elections are set for November 2018.
They also argued that any legislation or veto overrides adopted after June 30 — the day the Supreme Court order took effect – should be considered null and void because the legislative body included people elected from illegal districts.
To recent NAACP demands that lawmakers cease activity until new maps are drawn, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger said in June that lawmakers “will not abandon our constitutional duties as we await specific instruction from the courts.”
Legislative leaders have estimated that 116 of the 170 districts used to elect General Assembly members might be changed to correct the 28 racial gerrymanders. The current makeup of the state House is 74 Republicans and 46 Democrats; the Senate has 15 Democrats to 35 Republicans.
The lawmakers have argued in court filings that too few months are left in this year to seek public opinion, “engage in internal discussions about the design of remedial districts, prepare draft remedial plans, receive public responses to those draft remedial plans, and incorporate public feedback into the final plans.”
Lewis said on Wednesday that the process he envisions will have new maps in place no later than mid-November. There are plans, he said, to have a portal for the public to add their comments and suggestions, as well as hearings across the state.
But Lewis added that it could be the federal court, not the redistricting committee, that sets the schedule.
“We legitimately don’t know what the court’s going to come back with,” Lewis said.
Advocates of a non-partisan redistricting process that favors neither party held up signs before the hearing and watched the process from the back of the meeting room.
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause, said after the meeting that he hoped the next round of maps would be fashioned out of a transparent process. He said he was troubled that new maps could lead to more challenges in court and questions about legislative and congressional districts lingering with three years left until the next census. District lines are tweaked every 10 years to reflect population shifts in the census.
“We’ll see,” Phillips said after the meetnig. “Cynically, you could say they already have the maps drawn and this is all a charade.”