State Politics

Should NC politicians stop drawing their own districts?

North Carolina’s contorted history of congressional redistricting

Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.
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Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.

Leading House Republicans are pushing the latest attempt to let a nonpartisan commission – and not politicians – draw North Carolina’s voting districts.

Supporters of nonpartisan redistricting, long a goal of good-government advocates, say it would increase competition in districts that now are often safe for one party or the other. They say more voters would have an actual choice if politicians aren’t drawing their own districts.

The idea enjoyed support from Republicans when Democrats ran the General Assembly. But recent attempts have failed without GOP support in both chambers.

“When we were in the minority, the bill is something Republicans generally rallied around,” Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, told reporters Tuesday. “If it was the right thing then, it’s the right thing now.”

Under current law, the party that controls the General Assembly draws lines for the state’s congressional and legislative districts. That has led to a seemingly unending parade of court challenges and rulings.

At one point, the 12th Congressional District, now confined to most of Mecklenburg County, was the most litigated district in America. Most of the contested versions were drawn by Democrats.

Now congressional districts drawn by Republicans are the subject of a case being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Two other N.C. cases, including one that involves the state’s legislative districts, are also awaiting action by the high court.

The U.S. Constitution calls for redistricting every 10 years after the census. But federal and state court rulings have resulted in multiple map redesigns.

The bill calls for districts to be drawn by nonpartisan legislative staffers after a series of public hearings. Districts would need to be contiguous and could not favor a candidate or party.

Redistricting has always been a partisan exercise.

“I lived through it,” said Jim Gardner, a former lieutenant governor. In 1964 he nearly unseated a longtime Democratic congressman. Though Democratic lawmakers made the district even more Democratic, he won in 1966. That prompted Democrats to change his district again, taking his home county out of his district. In 1968, he decided not to run.

“Listening to the Democrats today moaning and groaning about fair play when they spent a hundred years doing the same thing, only worse,” Gardner said. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for them.”

But some Republicans want an end to so-called gerrymandering. Former GOP Gov. Jim Martin and former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot have spoken in favor of nonpartisan districting. McCrady’s bill has the backing of GOP Reps. Sarah Stevens, the House speaker pro tem, and Jon Hardister, the majority whip.

Reform advocates say almost half the state’s legislative races since 1992 had just one candidate on the ballot. And they say just one of 10 legislative races in 2016 was decided by less than double digits.

“North Carolinians are tired of the endless controversy around redistricting,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. “They are saying ‘Enough is enough.’ 

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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