With a federal court order to redraw congressional districts throwing uncertainty into North Carolina’s March 15 primary, some legislators and advocates argue that the legal mess could be avoided from now on.
Proposals for a nonpartisan redistricting process have been on the table for years. The idea is to prevent the majority party from drawing oddly shaped, “gerrymandered” districts that pack supporters of the minority party into a limited number of districts. The practice has meant that the majority party is virtually assured of victory in most legislative and congressional races.
Gerrymandering has been standard operating procedure for Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina for decades. And when the lines are drawn each decade, after the U.S. census, lawsuits inevitably follow – sometimes with courts ordering lawmakers to start over.
With the looming possibility of a special legislative session to redraw congressional maps, Bob Phillips of the watchdog group Common Cause North Carolina says it’s time to give nonpartisan redistricting another look.
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“The court case, in our mind, would have been avoided if we had a better process,” Phillips said.
Last year, a bipartisan group of legislators filed two bills that would have established a new redistricting process. Neither bill got a committee hearing because Republican leaders in both chambers declined to put them on the calendar.
House Bill 92 was modeled on an Iowa plan that lets lawmakers vote on redistricting proposals drafted by legislative staffers. It would take effect for the next round of redistricting, after the 2020 census.
The proposal would mandate “reasonably compact districts,” defined as being “square, rectangular or hexagonal in shape.” The sponsors included Republican House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam of Apex, House GOP budget writer Chuck McGrady and about 60 other members – a majority of the House’s legislators.
If the criteria (are) clear, then regardless of who is putting the maps together, that would limit the ability to gerrymander maps to the advantage of a political party.
Bob Phillips of Common Cause North Carolina
A second bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson and Republican Rep. Charles Jeter, would delay nonpartisan district drawing until 2031. It called for a nine-member Independent Redistricting Commission appointed by legislative leaders, the governor and the N.C. Supreme Court’s chief justice. Minority party leaders in the legislature would have appointments, and the governor would be required to appoint at least one person from another party.
“I think if it was an independent redistricting board, lawsuits would be more on the merits and technicalities of the maps, and less on emotional issues or partisan bickering,” Jeter said. “It may reduce the number (of legal challenges), but I don’t think it will eliminate it.”
Why would you expect it to be any different? If elected people choose them, do you expect it to be unbiased?
Sen. Bob Rucho
But Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican who led the latest redistricting process, said he doesn’t think an independent commission would improve the system.
“I don’t believe independent redistricting committees are necessary,” he said, noting that politicians would still be in charge of appointments under the Jackson-Jeter plan. “Why would you expect it to be any different? If elected people choose them, do you expect it to be unbiased?”
Rucho said a federal court panel’s objection to the current maps won’t change his opinion of the system. He noted that several other courts, including the N.C. Supreme Court, have upheld the maps as legal and constitutional.
“Tell me why anyone gives credence to a three-judge panel that disagrees,” he said. “I think the law is on our side.”
But Phillips said putting nonpartisan legislative staff in charge of maps – the Stam-McGrady proposal – would address Rucho’s concerns about continued partisan influence. The bill would ban mapmakers from considering data on partisan voting trends.
“If the criteria (are) clear, then regardless of who is putting the maps together, that would limit the ability to gerrymander maps to the advantage of a political party,” Phillips said.
Both 2015 proposals aren’t eligible for consideration in this year’s short session, which begins in April. But if legislative leaders take a sudden interest in nonpartisan redistricting, they could tack the legislation to another bill.
“We hope to certainly ask them to consider it or at least begin to work this session,” Phillips said.
Jeter says he’ll continue to push for a change as long as he’s in the legislature. And while he faces a tough re-election challenge in a Democratic-leaning district, he said voters deserve to have more competitive districts.
In this year’s election, Republicans aren’t running a candidate for 29 state House seats and six Senate seats held by Democrats. Democrats do not have candidates in 28 House races and 12 Senate races.
“Yeah, there’s times I get envious of some of my friends that don’t have races, but that’s not good for what we’re trying to do to move our state forward,” Jeter said.
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Why is it a ‘gerrymander’?
In 1812, when Republican Elbridge Gerry was governor of Massachusetts, the state legislature redrew districts as required, but gave several of them odd shapes for partisan advantage. A Federalist newspaper portrayed one of the sprawling districts as a salamander in a cartoon, and the term “gerrymander” was born.