Now might be the best chance to end gerrymandering in North Carolina, at least for another decade, a bipartisan group of legislators said Wednesday when they introduced a bill to do just that.
Their proposal would end North Carolina’s decades-long practice of allowing whichever political party controls the state legislature to draw the lines used to elect state legislators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Instead, the bill would create a committee of non-politicians who would be in charge of drawing the lines with help from legal and technical experts.
“Constituents should be the ones that pick their lawmakers, and not the other way around,” said Hendersonville Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady, one of the bill’s sponsors, whose party has been in charge of redistricting since 2011.
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McGrady joined with his fellow Republican Rep. Jon Hardister of Greensboro to file House Bill 69 along with Democratic Reps. Robert Reives of Pittsboro and Brian Turner of Asheville.
At a news conference to announce the bill, Reives criticized districts that snake in strange shapes between cities (which Democrats did) and districts that carve up college campuses (which Republicans did). He said if legislators voluntarily give up their power to do those things in the future, it would “make sure that people have faith in their government again. Because the bottom line is both parties have been guilty.”
Uncertainty over what exactly is going to happen in the 2020 elections, and who will control the legislature in 2021, is a big part of why the bill’s bipartisan sponsors said they think there’s a chance for change this year. No matter the result of all the various gerrymandering lawsuits currently challenging the fairness of North Carolina elections, the state must redraw all of its districts in 2021, using new data from the 2020 U.S. Census. That won’t happen again for 10 more years and another census.
Democrats chipped away significantly at Republicans’ control of the legislature in 2018, eliminating the GOP’s veto-proof supermajorities in both the N.C. Senate and House of Representatives. But will Democrats continue that momentum in 2020, taking one or both chambers? Or will Republicans hold on to power?
“At a point in time where neither the Republicans are sure they’re going to be in charge, nor the Democrats are sure they’re going to be in charge, maybe the time that both sides finally come together” is now, McGrady said.
If it passes, the redistricting committee would be made up of 11 non-politicians appointed by legislative leaders of the state’s main two political parties. It would have four Democratic voters, four Republican voters and three other voters. Anyone who has been a politician, campaign staffer, lobbyist or state board member, or who is related to anyone in those positions, would be legally barred from being on the committee until five years after they leave politics.
“This gives us an independent commission,” Reives said. “This gets this process as far away as it can be from the General Assembly making decisions about how these maps look.”
McGrady, who has filed a similar proposal in past years to no avail, said it’s based on the system Iowa put in place to take politics out of redistricting there. But if other legislators have tweaks, or ideas from different states, he’s all ears.
“We’re very open to other approaches,” McGrady said. “Whatever it takes.”
It’s unclear if the bill will ever come up for a vote, and in recent years similar attempts have not. But tides might be changing. Last month Republican Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, who leads the legislature’s redistricting efforts, said at a forum The News & Observer hosted that “If there is a better way to do that than we’ve done in the past, I’m certainly open to take a look at it.”
Detractors of independent redistricting say that it’s better for accountability to lie with elected officials rather than appointed committee members. In 2017, reacting to a similar proposal, the conservative NC Civitas Institute wrote that it wasn’t aware of proof that independent redistricting commissions create more competitive districts than politically directed redistricting.
“It is impossible to take politics out of the redistricting process. Instead we should continue to insist on a transparent redistricting process,” Civitas wrote at the time. “This will allow voters to determine whether the elected officials in charge followed all the rules and laws pertaining to the process.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states have independent commissions which lead redistricting efforts, and another 12, not including North Carolina, have committees that advise legislators on redistricting, or that serve as a backup in case the legislature fails to pass a plan.
McGrady said that 10 years ago this month, two Republican lawmakers who were then in the minority proposed a similar bill to create an independent redistricting committee. They were Sen. Phil Berger and Rep. Tim Moore, McGrady said, who are now the top Republicans in the state legislature. But they stopped pushing for redistricting reform once their party took over the process.
But McGrady, Hardister, Reives and Turner said they hope that changes this year, before North Carolina begins a new round of redistricting in 2021.
“My party’s currently in the majority,” said Hardister, who as the majority whip is one of the top Republicans in the House. “I felt this was the right thing to do when my party was in the minority, and I still feel it’s the right thing to do today.”