Cary News

Morrisville council debates gerrymandering in final discussion of voting districts

Council members debated proposed council district maps – and the definition of gerrymandering – Tuesday at the council’s last meeting before an Oct. 25 vote to adopt one of the three new maps.

Rapid and uneven population growth in Morrisville since the 2010 federal census prompted the town to take a special census in 2015. Those results are now being used to recalibrate district populations for the two council elections between now and the 2020 census. The process began earlier this year with the council directing town staff to draw up three proposals with the idea being that staff-drawn maps would be fairest.

The town passed a resolution last October in support of non-partisan redistricting processes, but Tuesday’s discussion became thorny as council members cited gerrymandering as a potential motive for those they disagreed with.

On Tuesday, town staff reported minimal public interest at the two open houses and from the online comment portal set up to solicit resident input.

The council districts apply only to those who wish to run for office. Candidates can run for the council seat for the district in which they live.

Residents can vote for all six council members – four district seats and two at-large seats – and the mayor, who votes with the council.

Three current council members are at risk of sharing a district with an incumbent under at least one of the three proposed options.

Five of the seven voting council members, which includes Mayor Mark Stohlman, said they will support the map that is closest to the average district population based on the special census. The other two options, which allow district sizes to stray from the average by 5 and 10 percent, place a greater priority upon keeping neighborhoods and similar communities in the same district.

Council members Liz Johnson and TJ Cawley would share District 2 if either the close-to-average or 5 percent variance options are chosen. Johnson said she supports the 10 percent variance. Cawley has said he supports waiting until the 2020 census to change the districts but that he’ll vote for the 10 percent variance if the maps must be changed now.

“I have noted how the new maps may be seen as subverting the will of the people by ‘double-bunking’ some of their duly elected representatives, essentially forcing a change in council composition before the next required redrawing of district maps,” Cawley said.

Councilwoman Vicki Scroggins-Johnson, who supports the close-to-average district map, would have to share District 3 with Johnson if the map allowing for a 10 percent variance is chosen.

With the exception of Cawley, the council praised the process as fair and useful. Councilman Michael Schlink contrasted the current process to the 2011 redistricting, which Schlink said had been gerrymandered because incumbents’ addresses had been taken into account. Johnson, the council’s longest-serving member, disputed that characterization.

“They most certainly were not (gerrymandered), Michael,” Johnson said. “Gerrymandering is where you pick your voters. Everyone votes for everyone in Morrisville.”

Schlink said he understands gerrymandering to be any action taken to protect incumbents.

Cawley said that Schlink’s opponent from the 2015 council election would not remain in Schlink’s district in any of the three maps. Schlink and Stohlman, though, said Cawley’s decision to take issue with the redistricting process is most responsible for the kind of politicization Cawley has said he wants to avoid.

“To me, that’s the definition of gerrymandering, so that doesn’t quite reconcile with our pledge not to gerrymander,” Stohlman said of Cawley’s comments about Schlink’s district. “This was done independently by staff, and we tried really hard to stay out of it. It’s important to have balance, and it says a lot about the council that we’re willing to do that at this point.”

Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan