Politics & Government

NC lawmakers start drawing new political maps. You can watch it all online.

Gerrymandering in North Carolina

The News & Observer's Will Doran explains gerrymandering in North Carolina, which is the subject of a lawsuit in state court.
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The News & Observer's Will Doran explains gerrymandering in North Carolina, which is the subject of a lawsuit in state court.

North Carolina lawmakers began the process of drawing new political maps Monday, to replace the state legislative lines ruled unconstitutional last week.

It will likely be the most transparent redistricting process in North Carolina history. Typically, much redistricting work happens behind closed doors. But that is not supposed to happen this time around.

“The court ordered any map drawing that is done to be out in public,” said Republican Rep. David Lewis, a top redistricting official, during a committee meeting Monday.

That court ruling came last week, after a trial that focused in large part on previously secret files from a GOP mapmaking expert, Thomas Hofeller. The judges at one point ruled those secret files probably should have been public records.

The judges also ruled that some claims Republican lawmakers made in court — and to the general public — about past map-drawing efforts were “highly improbable.”

So with that in mind, the judges ordered that not only must the new maps be drawn without using political data, they must also be drawn publicly. And discussions about the maps must also happen in public.

Some Democratic lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature said they’re cautiously optimistic about the plans to draw new maps, especially given the court’s rules about transparency and banning political considerations.

“I think the process we’re embarking on is a good one,” Durham Democratic Sen. Floyd McKissick said.

But as Democrats wait to see whether they will support the new maps, at least one contended that only Republicans should be held to the court’s rules, since only Republicans were named as defendants in the court case.

Who’s subject to court’s rules?

“The Democratic members are not a party to this litigation so we don’t see ourselves as being bound” by the court order, said Democratic Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, the top Democrat in the NC Senate, on Monday during a Senate committee meeting.

And during a House committee meeting, Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison asked Lewis for his opinion on that topic as well. Both Lewis and his Senate redistricting counterpoint, Republican Sen. Ralph Hise, said they believe the court ruling applies to the entire legislature, not just Republicans.

On Twitter, many Republicans and Democrats alike said Blue’s comment seemed hypocritical — especially since the Democratic Party was one of the challengers in the lawsuit that succeeded in getting political considerations taken out of the redistricting process.

Blue later said he thought his statement had been mischaracterized. He tweeted later that Republicans were already able to analyze political data from around the state, due to their involvement in the lawsuit, so Democrats should be able to do the same.

“Let me be clear before further knee-jerk reactions,” Blue said. “Republicans, as the defendants, have already reviewed political data. We need to establish a level playing field or neutralize this issue.”

Debate about the redistricting process

Blue also said, in a later committee meeting, that he thought lawmakers ought to be able to talk to each other in private. Saying that the court order prohibits all private conversations about redistricting, he said, seems like a misreading of that order. He added that the only way Democrats, as the minority party, can get anything passed is by negotiating with Republicans.

“I can’t believe the court would issue an order saying members can’t talk to each other because that’s completely ignoring the legislative process,” Blue said.

Stanton Jones, one of the lead attorneys representing Common Cause, who won the lawsuit overturning the maps, was at the General Assembly watching the proceedings Monday.

He said he was generally pleased with the commitment to transparency lawmakers seemed to be setting up in their deliberations. One concern, he said, is exactly how the legislature will come up with the map it starts with. While any tweaks to that base map will happen in public, the decisions about the base map itself may happen behind closed doors.

Both Lewis and Hise said that to come up with the base map, they plan to use maps created by Jowei Chen, a redistricting expert from the University of Michigan. Chen was an expert witness who testified for the challengers and helped their argument that the old maps were unconstitutional, so Republicans say using his maps ought to show the court that they’re being fair.

Lewis and Hise said Monday that Chen drew about 1,000 nonpartisan maps that they’ll look at, and that Chen assigned each of his maps scores that they want staffers to analyze and rank, to figure out which map to pick as the base map.

But Jones said it’s not so simple: Chen scored multiple different variables, so different maps could score higher depending on which variables legislative staff decide to give more or less weight. He said it will be important to pay attention to that analysis as well.

As for tweaks made to the base map, Republican Sen. Warren Daniel — another top redistricting official — said he hopes the redistricting committee approves only changes that can gain a consensus from both sides.

“Ideally this committee works together in a bipartisan fashion, and the divisiveness stops here,” he said.

How to watch

The House and Senate redistricting committees are meeting in rooms at the legislature that have a live audio stream.

Any official work to draw new maps must also happen in those rooms, and Lewis said the legislature will be setting up livestreams of both rooms for the public to be able to watch at all times during the process.

That constant livestream hadn’t been set up by early Monday afternoon, since the regular meetings were still happening, but eventually it should be posted online at www.ncleg.gov.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.
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