State Politics

Draw NC legislative districts without politics? Talks underway

Republicans in 2011 carved North Carolina into new districts from which public officials are elected, creating 170 areas for state lawmakers and 13 for members of Congress in a required effort to maintain balanced populations.

Democrats and left-leaning groups complained that the new maps intentionally deflated their candidates’ chances in the state and federal elections, but courts have upheld the redistricting effort – which is necessary after every census – as fair, legal and based on sound methodologies.

But there’s a reinvigorated movement among officials and policy groups with ties to both political parties who say they’re sick of gerrymandering, or at least of the public skepticism that comes when politicians handle how the voting areas are drawn.

Many of the legislative districts are not competitive, and instead virtually assure a candidate from one party or the other will win. At the congressional level, the state has been closely split among Republican and Democratic voters, but the new districts helped Republicans to a 10-3 advantage.

Democrats were in power in North Carolina for years, and often also came under similar criticism for the hard-to-understand district shapes and results of their redistricting plans. They also were accused of limiting or cutting certain voting groups’ collective power by packing them into just a few districts or thinning them out among many.

Changing the system will be the focus of a bipartisan effort to be announced Tuesday in Raleigh, according to Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat. He has previously sponsored past bills, with Republicans, to establish a nonpartisan redistricting process.

While those efforts weren’t successful, Glazier thinks this time may be different.

“You’ve got a broader coalition this year than in any years past,” he said.

Glazier and fellow Democrat Rep. Grier Martin of Raleigh plan to file legislation with “several Republican House members” cosponsoring. A statement counted among them House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam of Apex – a longtime supporter of independent redistricting – along with Reps. Jon Hardister of Greensboro and Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville.

The next redistricting will follow the 2020 census.

Not ‘a new thing’

Currently, the N.C. General Assembly assigns its own members to draw the state legislative and congressional district lines. Lawmakers do it with the help of census data that show how various population groups have grown or shifted over time.

It’s something of a rule, historically, that the majority party won’t back a change that might affect its plurality, said Becki Gray, vice president for outreach at the conservative John Locke Foundation. Whichever party is in power – the GOP presently – typically faces questions that its leaders gerrymandered to protect their seats.

“This isn’t a new thing,” said Gray. “By some of the reports in the press, you would come to believe that redistricting and gerrymandering have only been an issue to be discussed in the last four years, since Republicans have taken over the General Assembly. The fact of the matter is, this has been going on for years and it was just as bad, if not worse, when the other party was in control.”

She said Democrats had balked when Republicans suggested a different system for drawing district lines. Her group is among supporters for nonpartisan drawing of districts.

“If the rules are written in such a tight way that partisan influence is equally distributed or there isn’t any, then you’ve got a good system,” she said.

Thirteen states now have independent redistricting commissions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three others have commissions that advise their legislatures and five more have a designated backup group to handle redistricting if lawmakers can’t agree.

NCSL elections program manager Wendy Underhill said that “independent” is the eye of the beholder.

“Each (state’s) commission is designed different, and partisan interests are hard to keep separate,” she said.

Bills filed in North Carolina in recent years were similar to what Iowa enacted in 1980 – a system unlike in any other state.

Under the Iowa system, nonpartisan legislative staffers take the lead and draw districts as square and compact as census data will allow. Then, a commission of five members – two picked by majority leaders, two picked by minority leaders and the last by the commission itself – gives the legislative staff direction as needed, holds public hearings on the draft plan and delivers it to the legislature for an up-or-down vote.

It might not be a perfect system, “but it’s better than what we have,” said Martin. His Raleigh district resembles a blot of spilled ink, spreading northward from downtown Raleigh to the northeast and northwest.

“It puts a layer of insulation between the legislative foxes and those who are drawing the henhouse boundaries,” Martin said.

Any proposal must win over Republicans, who hold large majorities in the House and Senate.

Little interest in Senate

While a 2011 nonpartisan redistricting bill passed the House (the final vote was 88-27), it died in the Senate. Asked about the chances of a nonpartisan redistricting bill this year, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said he typically doesn’t comment on bills that haven’t reached his chamber.

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, he expressed little interest in changing the current system in a recent interview.

“I have yet to see a so-called independent redistricting commission that is truly independent,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m still out there looking for that nonpartisan soul that really has no opinion about politics one way or the other that has an informational background in politics. ... I don’t see an independent redistricting commission or any of the proposals that have been floated as improving on the system that we have now.”

Computers have become one possible option, with political scientists and others creating almost perfectly balanced districts that are much more compact than the current system produces.

Proponents say computers are blind to politics and, if fed appropriate census data, wouldn’t consider population factors that influence gerrymandering.

“Which (voters) are Liberal, Conservative, Republican, Democrat, Black, White, Christian, Jewish, polka-dotted, or whatever has absolutely zero effect on the district shapes that come out,” says the Center for Range Voting, a group founded in 2005 that touts algorithm-based redistricting. “So you know the maps are going to be completely unbiased.”

A programmer from Boston named Brian Olson created software that, using 2010 census data, made compact, nonspidery districts with balanced racial populations for state legislative districts and Congress in all 50 states. He acknowledged that his system could break up some minority populations.

His computer versions of the House and the Senate districts look more even and compact than the current, legislatively drawn House and Senate versions. His computer-generated congressional districts also look much different than the currently drawn districts do.

While computers may put out a clean product, there’s a catch, said Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

“You cannot do a computer program without a person behind it,” she said. “Somebody has to program the criteria into the computer, and there are decisions that are going to have to be made by human beings.”

It’s to the benefit of the political parties and voters to strip politics from the process, Pinsky said.

“Both parties now have the experience of being out of power, and neither one of them wants to be put out of power again,” she said.

She said more evenly drawn districts would require elected officials to work harder to reach their constituents and would give voters a better feeling about democracy.

No appetite for change

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican who played a leading role in the last round of redistricting, doesn’t see the need to change. Neither does the court system, he added.

“The (N.C.) Supreme Court just made a decision,” Rucho said. “If you haven’t read it, you need to read it.”

he state NAACP chapter and other plaintiffs wanted the Republican-drawn maps thrown out on the basis they gerrymandered to weaken the black vote. Their lawsuit, which named Rucho and other legislators as defendants, failed. The court found the maps “represent an equally legitimate understanding of legislative districts that will function for the good of the whole.”

Rucho said redistricting is a complicated numbers game – “it’s like a cookbook; if you put the wrong remedy in, the food doesn’t come out right” – that also must stand review by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Maps drawn by the Democratic-led General Assembly after the 2000 census were found to be unconstitutional and had to be redrawn.

The most recent maps “have been affirmed by a Democratic administration at the federal level,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican who also led the last redistricting. He has been the primary sponsor of past bills to set up an independent redistricting commission.

A major challenge for proponents of the change is that it might require a constitutional amendment, which voters would have to approve. The North Carolina Constitution puts redistricting power in the General Assembly alone. Even if that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be much to stop a future legislature from undoing the nonpartisan system, unless constitutional language protected it.

Glazier said he is generally “loathe” to support constitutional amendments and thinks they’re pushed too often. “But I think when you’re talking about something as substantial as how you’re going to elect your legislature, that is a constitutional-worthy question,” he said.

Benjamin Brown writes for the, a government news service owned by The News & Observer.