Under the Dome

Judges try their hand at drawing political district maps

Members of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting meet before the start of their morning meeting at the N.C. Legislature in front of historical districting maps on Tuesday, February 16, 2016.
Members of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting meet before the start of their morning meeting at the N.C. Legislature in front of historical districting maps on Tuesday, February 16, 2016. clowenst@newsobserver.com

Ten retired judges will take a shot at drawing political districts for North Carolina in an experiment that they hope won’t be just an academic exercise.

The simulation got underway last week at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy in a program dubbed “Beyond Gerrymandering: Impartial Redistricting for North Carolina.”

The effort is led by Tom Ross, former UNC system president and now a Terry Sanford distinguished fellow at Duke. Collaborators include the nonpartisan Common Cause North Carolina and POLIS, the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Service, part of Duke’s Sanford School.

Redistricting – the process of drawing congressional and legislative districts every 10 years after the census – has a problem-plagued history in North Carolina, where maps often have ended in legal battles. Just this year, a court tossed out two congressional districts, calling them racial gerrymanders, throwing the primary into chaos and forcing the legislature to go back to the drawing board to come up with new maps. The election date for congressional races is now June 7.

In general, redistricting is a messy process in which the party in charge gets to create safe districts – in other words, politicians choose their voters, instead of the other way around. That leads to less competition, less accountability and diminished policy innovation, said Mark Nance of N.C. State’s School of Public and International Affairs.

In 2014, only 8 percent of legislative races in North Carolina were considered competitive, decided by 5 percentage points or less.

For decades people on both sides of the aisle have called for reform – the creation of an independent commission that would draw the maps, similar to those in states such as Iowa and California. Although 14 states have reformed their redistricting processes, the idea never has gained much traction among the party in charge in North Carolina.

But participants in the Duke exercise say the time may be right.

“I think we’re at a time in the country where this is an issue that people are really concerned about,” Ross said on Thursday. “There is a sharp partisanship that I think many voters are tired of. I think they’re looking for people who will produce solutions and help government work better.”

He said both parties have been at fault in perpetuating the current system.

Experts at the Duke event cited several factors that are different now. North Carolina’s population is growing rapidly and shifting, with migration to urban areas and an increase in minority populations.

Rebecca Tippett, a demographer with the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, said North Carolina will gain another congressional seat after the 2020 census because of growth. The electorate is changing, she said: The over-18 population in the state in 2014 was 67 percent white, 21 percent black and 7 percent Latino; the under-18 population was 53 percent white, 23 percent black and 15 percent Latino.

“North Carolina is experiencing profound demographic changes,” Tippett said.

I think that’s our best argument: Take out an insurance policy against a catastrophic loss. That’s like a hurricane. Ask Democrats.

John Hood, Pope Foundation president, referring to the chance of an election loss right before redistricting

That creates a more unstable political environment, and a growing proportion of North Carolina voters are not affiliated with a political party.

“There is a lot more uncertainty in this system than either party has recognized,” Nance said.

And that, says John Hood, president of the Pope Foundation, is perhaps the way to persuade the ruling party – currently Republicans – to take a risk on redistricting reform.

“I think that’s our best argument: Take out an insurance policy against a catastrophic loss,” Hood said, referring to an election loss before redistricting. “That’s like a hurricane. Ask Democrats.”

Hood pointed out that the argument can’t be won by Democrats accusing Republicans of an illegitimate rise to power. That’s just not true.

The public now understands, on both sides, what’s really at stake when we draw legislative districts.

Chris Fitzsimon, founder and director of NC Policy Watch

Hood, a conservative, found himself agreeing with his frequent liberal sparring partner, Chris Fitzsimon, founder and director of NC Policy Watch.

Fitzsimon said in all the years he’s talked about redistricting before audiences, he’s now noticing less that eyes glaze over at the topic. A wave of populism seen in the current climate also could push the issue forward, he said.

“The visibility of this issue is higher, I think, than it’s ever been,” he said. “The public now understands, on both sides, what’s really at stake when we draw legislative districts.”

The 10 judges, Republicans and Democrats, soon will get to work on their unofficial map. They include former state Supreme Court justices Rhoda Billings, Jim Exum, Sarah Parker and Bob Orr. Complicating their task is legal precedent and the Voting Rights Act, which are sometimes contradictory about how race can or should be considered in creating districts.

Orr said there needs to be some sort of clarity on the use of race, and he’d like to see the U.S. Supreme Court take up the question of whether partisan gerrymandering is constitutional.

“As long as that’s a viable option in drawing districts you’re going to see the kind of safe districts which create polarized voting and the polarized attitude that we have,” said Orr, a Republican.

Former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye, a Democrat, said he supported redistricting reform when the Democrats were in charge. It didn’t happen, but he’s feeling more optimistic now.

“This is something that needs to be improved,” he said. “We can sit back and complain about it, but instead we’ve said, let’s try.”

Frye will sit down with his colleagues in the coming weeks. “We may fail,” he said, “but we’re going to try.”

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