Raleigh, N.C. — As North Carolina lawmakers meet to begin the 2017 long session, good-government advocates are trying again to convince them to pass redistricting reform.
"We're well aware of the fact that this is an uphill battle," said Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.
Every session for the past 20 years, critics of the state's notoriously partisan redistricting process have tried to persuade the party in power, both Democrats and Republicans, that changing to a nonpartisan process would make elections fairer and more competitive. And every session, the majority party allows the proposal to die in committee.
Still, advocates insist 2017 could be their year.
Noting the state's rapidly changing demographics, Common Cause North Carolina director Bob Phillips said neither party could be certain of winning a majority in 2020,
"Both parties, if you accept reform, at least you're guaranteeing, sort of like an insurance policy, that you'll always have a voice," Phillips said, "and that the minority party won't be literally gerrymandered into irrelevance, as the Democrats did to Republicans and as Republicans have done to Democrats."
The bipartisan coalition supporting redistricting reform includes both the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center and the right-leaning John Locke Foundation. Those two organizations find themselves on opposing sides of the ongoing lawsuit against the current legislative districts but united in pushing state lawmakers to find a better, fairer, less litigious way to draw maps in the future.
"Just because lawmakers can draw the districts the way they have doesn't mean they should," said Locke's Mitch Kokai. "What we need to do is take the process out of the hands of the people who stand to benefit from it."
Under proposals filed in recent years, the state would model its redistricting process after Iowa's process, which uses nonpartisan legislative staff to draw districts based on very strict criteria, not based on partisanship or current representation. Legislators are likewise under a strict timeline to either approve or disapprove the completed maps.
In previous sessions, redistricting reform bills have been passed with bipartisan support in the House but haven't been given a hearing in the Senate.
House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, came in to listen to the press conference. He sponsored redistricting reform legislation as recently as 2011, but he told reporters after Wednesday's event that he doesn't necessarily support pushing through an independent redistricting commission this year.
"Partisanship is part of who each and every one of us are," Lewis said.
Lewis denied that the Iowa model had produced more competitive legislative districts. Suggesting that any process would produce a truly nonpartisan result, he said, was either "naive or disingenuous."