The maps that Republican leaders have proposed for electing N.C. General Assembly members in 2018 won approval on Friday from a key House committee and the full Senate, despite objections from Democratic lawmakers.
There are more votes scheduled for next week. Each chamber must approve a set of maps that will then be sent to the panel of judges who ordered new district lines after finding 28 unconstitutional gerrymanders in the districts used for the past three election cycles.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican leading the redistricting process, said he would not be surprised if new maps were not ratified until the day before the lawmakers have to report back to the federal judges who ordered them drawn again. The judges set a Sept. 1 deadline.
Democrats proposed amendments to the lines drawn by Thomas Hofeller, a veteran mapmaker for the Republican party who created the 2011 lines unanimously rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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There was long, and occasionally testy debate, in the House redistricting committee after Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat and House minority leader, put forth a map proposed by the challengers in the lawsuit that forced the redrawing.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican, raised a series of questions about the map that reflected criticism that Republicans have heard about the maps drawn by Hofeller.
Dollar and other Republican House members grilled Jackson on who the mapmaker was. They asked why the data and statistics had not been attached to the maps so they could figure out which districts favored Democrats, and they asked why Wake County and Mecklenburg County, and cities and towns within the borders, had been divided into the districts proposed.
Dollar asked why some incumbent legislators had been drawn into the same district, when one of the criteria from the redistricting committee was to try not to bunk current lawmakers with each other.
Jackson often did not have concise answers to the questions, but said he could invite Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and lead attorney for the challengers, to the meeting if they wanted.
“You offer an amendment and yet you want to take ownership but don’t want to take ownership,” Dollar said.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Mt. Airy Republican and speaker pro tempore of the House, said Jackson should have come better prepared to answer questions. “Maybe it’s not his dog, but he’s walking it, he should have some obligation to know,” she said.
Dollar was critical of the maps proposed by the challengers. The maps were described as “Democratic gerrymanders.”
Lawmakers in North Carolina and across the country have the responsibility to tweak district lines for state and congressional office every 10 years to reflect population shifts. Political parties have taken the task as an opportunity to shape districts for partisan advantage, and to date the courts have allowed that to happen.
Race, though, cannot be a driving factor for drawing district lines. The maps that Hofeller, the legislative leaders’ consultant, drew in 2011 relied too heavily on race, the courts have ruled. The judges found they created unconstitutional gerrymanders in 19 state House districts and nine Senate districts that weakened the overall influence of black voters.
At a public hearing on Tuesday that lasted more than five hours, many critics of the proposed maps said that though the redistricting commission’s criteria did not call for considering the race of voters in each district that lawmakers could still be accused of racial gerrymandering.
Most of the proposed districts in the new maps lean Republican, similar to the current makeup of the General Assembly, where Republicans hold supermajorities in both the state House and Senate.
President Donald Trump would have won 33 of the 50 proposed Senate districts and 76 of the 120 proposed House districts. Statewide last year, Republican nominee Trump won 49.9 percent of the vote to 46.1 percent for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The numbers released earlier this week for the GOP maps show that just 10 of the 50 Senate districts will likely be competitive next year – those are the only districts in which either Trump or Clinton would have won by single digits. Seven of the competitive districts lean Republican and the other three lean Democratic. On the other hand, a handful of districts would have seen presidential results as lopsided as a 70-30 split.
Just 19 of the 120 House districts are competitive by the same measure, including 12 that lean to Republicans and seven that lean to Democrats.
While people from both parties have called for a person or organization independent from either party to take over redistricting, Republicans who have controlled the General Assembly since 2010 argue that Democrats drew lines for their partisan advantage for many decades before them.
The vote in the House broke down mostly along party lines. Rep. Michael Speciale, a Republican representing Beaufort, Craven and Pamlico counties, pushed for an amendment that would have eliminated bunking one of his colleagues in the legislature with another incumbent. Speciale voted against the GOP maps after his amendment failed.
In the Senate, Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Spruce Pine and leader of the redistricting committee, worked to dispute contentions that the lawmakers have not been serious about correcting the gerrymanders found to be unconstitutional.
“In the drawing of these maps, we placed a lot of respect into what the courts said,” Hise said Friday.