A Republican kingmaker and a former UNC System president joined lawmakers of both parties Thursday to call for a new constitutional amendment aimed at ending politically motivated gerrymandering in North Carolina.
Art Pope, an influential GOP donor, joined with former UNC President Tom Ross in a press conference at the North Carolina General Assembly building to promote a proposal for new constitutional amendment by Hendersonville Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady.
Proponents of redistricting reform say it will lead to more moderate politicians on both sides, since under heavily gerrymandered maps the races are often won in the party primaries, not the general elections. Ross said Thursday that without changing that system, “the polarization that we experience today in our state and society is only going to get worse.”
“People feel that the system is broken, and partisan gerrymandering is a significant part of the problem,” Ross said.
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The amendment proposal has at least some bipartisan support. Other lawmakers can still sign on as co-sponsors, McGrady said Thursday, but early co-sponsors include two of the top Republican leaders in the House, Mount Airy Rep. Sarah Stevens and Greensboro Rep. Jon Hardister, as well as one of the top Democratic leaders, Chatham County Rep. Robert Reives.
Hardister, Reives and McGrady, along with Asheville Democratic Rep. Brian Turner, also teamed up earlier this month on a proposal to change state laws to create an independent redistricting committee. The two plans have different details, and are also different from a procedural standpoint.
Constitutional amendments are harder to pass than regular laws. They require more votes in the General Assembly, and if they pass there, they then have to go before voters for a final approval. But being harder to pass also means they’re harder to undo than normal laws, which McGrady said is a selling point for politicians skeptical of whether their rivals are operating in good faith.
“Having talked to my Republican colleagues, I think the constitutional amendment approach, there will be interest in it,” McGrady said in an interview. “It doesn’t leave the problem of, ‘Yeah, we pass something, but then two or three years from now: Surprise, Democrats are in charge, and they change the law.’”
Supporters of redistricting reform believe this year is the best chance in a while for the two sides to compromise. The maps must be re-drawn in 2021, and there is widespread uncertainty over which party will have control of the legislature after the 2020 elections.
“We have the opportunity at this moment in our history to show ourselves, and the rest of the country, that North Carolina does not shy away from its problems, but rather faces them head-on,” Ross said in an interview.
He and McGrady are co-chairs of the group North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, which includes lawyers, politicians and public figures from both sides of the aisle.
Their proposal would leave the legislature in charge of redistricting, while making it harder for legislators to draw maps that are fine-tuned to give a major edge to one party or another.
Under the current system, the lines drawn in 2011 by Republicans have been struck down multiple times as unconstitutional, and in past decades lines drawn by Democrats were also struck down as unconstitutional.
What the amendment does
The proposed constitutional amendment is known as HB140 or the FAIR Act. It would ban the use of political data, like past election results or voter registration files, in drawing the districts. While a separate bill filed earlier this month would take away the legislature’s power over redistricting and give that power to an independent commission, the FAIR Act would not require that, but would make it an option.
(A previous version of this article incorrectly described who would be in charge of redistricting if the FAIR Act amendment passes. Under the FAIR Act, the legislature would remain in charge of drawing the maps, with new restrictions on using political data. )
Ross said if people get the chance to vote on the amendment, he’s confident it will pass.
“There’s not only broad based support, but frankly a lot of enthusiasm and a real thirst for a different way of doing business,” he said in an interview.
Pope’s own history represents the tangled political history of gerrymandering in North Carolina. He said that 30 years ago in 1989, when he was in the legislature, he and former Republican Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam proposed a similar idea to end gerrymandering. That effort went nowhere, at a time when Democrats were in charge.
And after the tables turned in the GOP wave of 2010, it was the Democrats’ turn to call for reform and the Republicans’ turn to ignore those calls. In that same time frame, Pope went from successfully suing to overturn the 2001 Democratic maps as unconstitutional, to helping draw the 2011 Republican maps that were also ruled unconstitutional.
Thursday, Pope said it’s time to take the politics out of redistricting. He said he was at the UNC-Duke basketball game the night before and was thinking about how, unlike the state’s current redistricting system, that game was played with rules that treated both sides fairly.
“No one questioned the legitimacy of that victory,” Pope said of UNC’s win.