When legislators were in the middle of debating changes to North Carolina House and Senate districts last month, they were legally required to seek public input.
But they don’t appear to have listened too intently.
Of the more than 4,300 written comments that legislators received on redistricting, just 38 were positive, according to Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat, who said he got the data from General Assembly staff.
“That means 99.2 percent of the comments were opposed to precisely what the redistricting committee went ahead and did anyway — which was to draw the maps to favor one party,” Jackson wrote in a post on the Charlotte Agenda news website.
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However, Republican Sen. Ralph Hise of Mitchell County, who leads the senate’s redistricting committee, said Jackson should recognize that 4,300 people in a state of 10 million isn’t necessarily representative of general public opinion.
Reaction at public hearings was similarly lopsided. Two days after receiving the last of the overly negative public comments, the legislature passed the new districts largely along party lines, with Republicans mostly in favor and Democrats mostly opposed. The proposed maps are due to a panel of federal judges this week.
On Wednesday, a day after his post went online, Jackson said he hadn’t heard from any fellow legislators weighing in on his analysis of the comments. He said he doesn’t think any of them would be too surprised at the lopsided public opinion.
“There are not two sides to this issue,” he said in an interview.
However, Hise defended the new lines. He also said that many of the comments were parroted language from liberal groups, and didn’t often offer specific constructive advice or criticism. On the other hand, he added, some comments did make suggestions that lawmakers took to heart, Hise said.
“Several members of the public made suggestions that ended up being included in our final criteria, including additional anti-gerrymandering measures such as splitting fewer municipalities and precincts,” he said.
Federal judges this year ordered the legislature to redraw the lines used to elect members of the N.C. Senate and House of Representatives. The current lines, the judges found, were unconstitutional because 28 of the state’s districts were drawn in a way to lessen the overall influence of black voters.
Republican lawmakers drew the lines later found unconstitutional in 2011, shortly after taking over the General Assembly for the first time in a century. The legislature passed its new lines last week.
The challengers whose lawsuit forced the changes will have until Sept. 15 to file their response to the new lines. Attorneys already have raised concerns about a continuation of racial gerrymandering.
The fate of redistricting in North Carolina could very well hang on an upcoming Supreme Court case, involving districts in Wisconsin.
While courts have previously ruled against racial gerrymandering – like in North Carolina’s case – they haven’t stepped in to stop political gerrymandering.
But the Wisconsin case could change that, and it’s leading to a growing bipartisan campaign against gerrymandering that includes one of North Carolina’s Republican representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Rep. Walter Jones, a Pitt County Republican, signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, along with three dozen other current and former members of Congress.
“Americans do not like gerrymandering,” their brief states. “They see its mischief, and absent a legal remedy, their sense of powerlessness and discouragement has increased, deepening the crisis of confidence in our democracy. We share this perspective.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, a Buncombe County Republican, was listed as joining the lawmakers on the brief, but Meadows’ spokesman, Ben Williamson, said his name was added in error. Meadows later got his name removed from the brief.
“As he does with all action items, Congressman Meadows indicated he would be willing to review the Amicus brief but never intended to formally sign on,” Williamson said in a statement. “His name was added in error and has been removed from the brief. We continue to enjoy a tremendous working relationship with the North Carolina State legislature and are grateful for everything they do.”
Additionally, national Republican figures like Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are behind another brief.
State legislators from across the country also have filed another, similar brief with the U.S. Supreme Court. They include Rick Glazier, a Democrat who represented Fayetteville in the N.C. House of Representatives for 13 years before resigning his post to become executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center.
Margaret Dickson, the former state senator and Fayetteville Democrat who filed a lawsuit in state court challenging North Carolina's 2011 maps as racial gerrymanders, also signed on to the brief.
What they said
Jackson acknowledged that the Democratic Party previously used gerrymandering to help its political fortunes, just as he said the Republicans are doing now. But he said that means lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have now been on the losing side of gerrymandering, and should be willing to work together to make elections more fair in the future, no matter who’s in charge.
“While it’s true that my side cheated to win, it’s also true that Republicans are cheating much harder than we ever did,” he said in the interview.
In his post, Jackson reprinted some of the comments on the new lines. Some called on legislators to stop drawing the lines themselves, to avoid the temptation to make them unfairly favor whatever party is currently in power.
“We need to have a nonpartisan outside group do our redistricting,” one commenter said. “We are firmly a purple state and our state legislature should represent that.”
Another wrote: “I think the maps should be drawn without regard for a political party. If it was wrong for Democrats to gerrymander lines, then it is just as wrong for Republicans. I think all members of the legislature should think more about the people of this state and less about their re-election.”
One of the 38 comments in favor, according to Jackson, suggested retaining the current, unconstitutional districts.
“Change nothing,” it read. “Liberals are just crying because they lost.”
But other favorable comments defended the new lines as just what the courts are looking for.
“These new maps look like a great step in the right direction and I would hope that future redistricting efforts towards simplification would continue,” another comment read.