North Carolina’s election maps have been ruled illegal racial or partisan gerrymanders several times in recent years, so a Democrat in the state Senate recently proposed the creation of an independent redistricting commission.
But his plan would allow the governor to tilt the balance of power on the board to his own party – drawing swift rebuke from the GOP.
Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte, who filed the plan as a bill, “is free to support a return to districts that support his political party, but he should not get to do so while claiming to support an ‘independent’ process,” said Mark Coggins, a policy adviser to state Rep. David Lewis of Dunn, who leads GOP redistricting efforts, said in an email.
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The N.C. Senate Republicans Twitter account said: “Mr. Independent Redistricting is a fraud.”
The problem for Republicans? Jackson’s proposed commission is nearly identical to redistricting commissions proposed by Republican legislators when Democrats controlled the N.C. General Assembly.
Lewis and Rep. Tim Moore, now the House speaker, sponsored a bill in 2007 that called for the same appointment process. Sen. Phil Berger, now the state Senate leader, sponsored similar bills in 2005 and 2001.
“The idea was to introduce a redistricting bill that leadership had already supported in order to give it a chance of passing,” Jackson said. “If [Berger and Moore] have revised their opinion about how to best solve this problem, I’m open to any ideas – so long as we finally end the corruption of gerrymandering on which both parties have relied.”
The problem for Democrats? When their party controlled the legislature and Republicans proposed independent redistricting commissions, Democrats – like today’s Republicans – showed no interest in them. In fact, Republican legislators have filed more than a dozen bills since 2000 that proposed the creation of an independent redistricting commission.
State law allows legislators to draw districts for legislative and congressional elections. So if one party controls the state House and Senate, that party’s lawmakers can draw and approve maps that give them an advantage.
On Jan. 10, Jackson and two other Democrats proposed a bill that would require the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court and party leaders in the General Assembly to appoint three Republicans and three Democrats. The governor would complete the nine-member commission, appointing three people – which could include two members of his own party.
Under Berger’s bills, the House speaker and Senate leader would pick the opposing party’s commission appointee.
The problem with allowing legislators to draw the maps, former Republican state Sen. Pete Brunstetter said in 2009, is that “it allows legislators to choose their voters and not vice versa.”
Gov. Roy Cooper now commonly uses the same phrase to advocate for an independent redistricting commission. “I believe that voters should choose their politicians instead of politicians choosing their voters,” Cooper told The N&O in a December interview while criticizing Republican-drawn election maps.
Republican Rep. John Blust of Greensboro was a primary sponsor of most of the Republican bills seeking an independent process. Asked whether he still supports the idea of independent redistricting commissions, Blust said yes.
“I’m not sure we’re ever going to get there because no one’s going to give up that power,” he said. “But it’s not healthy for our system when politicians can manipulate to pick their voters.”
However, considering Democrats failed to support his efforts throughout the years, Blust is skeptical of their motives.
“Where were all of you when Democrats were doing the same thing?” Blust said, addressing Democrats pushing the new proposal. “If Democrats gain power, the first thing that will happen within seconds is that they will lose any desire for independent redistricting.”
Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, the Senate minority leader, acknowledged that Democrats “invoked a partisan advantage” when they controlled the legislature.
“But we were able to maintain a 7-6 split among congressional districts, which was reflective of North Carolina’s political makeup,” Blue said. “We didn’t push the constitutional limits by trying to draw congressional maps with a 10-3 partisan advantage simply because we could.”
He continued: “We also didn’t anticipate that Republicans would be so brazen in their efforts to gain absolute power across the state. At this juncture, we’ve seen what they are willing to do to the democratic process; and we have learned from our mistakes.”
Blue said he supports Jackson’s bill and praised it for allowing the party out of power to have a seat at the table.
“When Democrats do take back the majority, we are prepared to act on independent redistricting so that we can put an end to the power grabs from all sides,” he said. “When we can do that, then we can truly get to work improving our state.”
State Rep. Darren Jackson of Knightdale, the House minority leader (who’s not related to Sen. Jeff Jackson), said the majority of House members weren’t in office in 2010, when Democrats last controlled the legislature.
“And they’ve been fairly consistent in supporting a redistricting commission,” Darren Jackson said. “I would expect voters to hold us responsible for those promises.”
In order to receive bipartisan support, he said the proposed commission’s ninth member should be appointed by the other eight members. The commission should also include residents who are neither Republican or Democrat.
“The number of independents is growing,” he said. “We shouldn’t take actions that limit unaffiliated or Libertarians from the process.”
Bills through the years
Here’s a list of bills that would’ve created a redistricting commission.
2007: HB76 (sponsored by Rep. John Blust, Rep. David Lewis, now-House Speaker Tim Moore, and former House Speaker Thom Tillis – now a U.S. senator)