North Carolina’s legislative leaders adopted rules Thursday that they will use when drawing new election district lines, after 28 districts were ruled unconstitutional last year.
The current lines were drawn in a way to unfairly disenfranchise black voters, federal courts found.
While racial gerrymandering is illegal, the U.S. Supreme Court has so far allowed political gerrymandering, and one of the new rules is that legislators may consider past election results when drawing the new lines.
Rep. David Lewis told a joint meeting of the House and Senate redistricting committees that the process “will be an inherently political thing.”
Democrats opposed that rule, along with another one that says the new maps can be drawn in such a way to protect incumbents.
“It just seems ridiculous to me that you get to say, ‘We will protect the incumbents elected using unconstitutional maps,’ ” House Minority Leader Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, said.
While the new rules allow map makers to consider past political results and the addresses of incumbents, one thing legislators prohibited themselves from considering was race.
Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and a House leader on redistricting, said he thought that decision was in keeping with the recent court ruling that found the current lines unconstitutional. Democrats, however, objected. They said that by not considering race, it will be hard to see if the new map also discriminates against racial minorities like the old one did.
“We live in the South,” said Sen. Paul Lowe, a Democrat from Winston-Salem. “When, in the South, has race not been a factor?”
Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, also criticized that decision.
“You’re still short-changing race,” Michaux told Lewis. “You’re still short-changing a group of people by not including them.”
That exchange was just one of several in which Democrats questioned whether the new lines will end up being unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, leading to yet another court case.
Earlier this week, Republican legislators rehired the same political consultant who drew the current, unconstitutional map. For his new round of services this year, Tom Hofeller will earn at least $50,000 from the state.
Jackson asked who would be helping Hofeller make sure these new lines don’t also disenfranchise people.
Lewis said legislators will welcome input from anyone.
“Members of the public can comment on the map,” he said.
The deadline for new maps is fast approaching; a three-judge federal court panel has ordered the state to submit new maps by Sept. 1.
Lewis said Thursday that with the rules approved they’ll start working immediately on drawing the map, with a goal of finishing it by Aug. 22 or 23.
Among the criteria legislators adopted Thursday, some were non-controversial rules aimed at simply following the law, and they passed unanimously. Others were more controversial and passed in votes that were split along party lines. The legislature’s two redistricting committees are bipartisan, although Republicans have more members on each.
There will be continued hearings on redistricting, and Lewis said legislators value public comment.
“We’re trying to respond to requests from the public, from members, who said ‘Try to make the districts a little more compact,’ ” he said.
Responding to criticism about the rule to protect incumbents, Lewis also said that “is a traditional redistricting criteria.”
That led Sen. Terry Van Duyn, an Asheville Democrat, to shoot back a retort of her own.
“That may have been done traditionally, but I think we’re hearing from the people of North Carolina that they want that to change,” she said.
She may get her wish; Lewis also pointed out that the rules say the maps “may” be drawn to avoid double-bunking, or putting two incumbents into the same district. He said he doubts every incumbent will be protected.
“There will be pairings of incumbents that won’t be able to be avoided,” Lewis said.
Another notable criterion they approved Thursday was that the new maps “may” consider municipal boundaries, but that’s not required.
Democrats opposed that. Jackson wanted the criterion to say municipal boundaries “should” be considered, although Lewis declined that. Several Democrats also argued for adding a line about keeping “communities of interest” together in the new lines, although Lewis also declined that, saying the term is too vague.
Van Duyn also pushed back against one criterion regarding the splitting of individual voting precincts into different legislative districts. She said the rules didn’t go far enough to stop what she called the most blatant and harmful form of political gerrymandering, although Republicans shot down her proposed changes.
The new lines will also be drawn using 2010 census data. Yet in the last six-plus years, thousands of North Carolinians have moved out of smaller rural areas and into larger urban and suburban areas. So using the 2010 data will disadvantage urban areas.
Between 2010 and 2016, according to UNC’s Carolina Population Center, nearly 75 percent of the cities and towns in North Carolina have either lost population or have grown slower than the state average. According to the UNC data, Eastern North Carolina has been hit the hardest.