NC legislature starts, slowly, on map redraws

Posted July 26

— Republican map makers will use the same nationally known GOP consultant to redraw North Carolina's legislative maps that they used in the 2011 drawing that produced maps later found unconstitutional, leadership confirmed Wednesday.

Although Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the House's point man for this process, said he sincerely hopes the Democrats will participate in this court-ordered redraw, the minority party won't have access to consultant Tom Hofeller's work as maps are designed.

House and Senate committees designated to oversee the redrawing process met for the first time Wednesday, one day ahead of a federal court hearing in Greensboro that will help determine the next steps in North Carolina's drawn-out redistricting process. Lewis said he hopes new legislative maps will be drawn by November, but federal judges may change that timetable.

Plaintiffs who successfully challenged the legality of the 2011 maps want the court to force lawmakers to draw new maps by Aug. 11 and hold elections in March, before the General Assembly's next full regular session. Protesters at Wednesday's meeting complained that the GOP majority is an unconstitutional one and that Republican leaders are dragging their feet.

The three-judge panel that found the current maps unconstitutional may also lay out specific criteria legislators must follow in drawing new ones. If not, House and Senate committees will set those criteria, which will restrict what the new maps can look like. Lewis said Wednesday this is a key reason for the current holding pattern.

"We legitimately don't know what the court's going to come back with," he said.

Computerized map-making allows officials to lump voters with similar tendencies together into districts, producing odd-looking lines and districts that lean so heavily left or right it's almost impossible for the one side to win. With the right district lines, elections are won in the primary, pulling politics to the fringes and empowering the majority, which gets to draw the maps every 10 years following the U.S. census.

Critics say the GOP's current veto-proof majority in the legislature is at least partially the result of unfair maps in a state that's closer to 50-50 between the parties. Republicans rose to power in 2010, though, under maps drawn by a Democratic legislature.

Lewis said he wants to see robust public comment in the redraw, and public hearing dates will be rolled for the late summer and early fall. An online comment portal was announced Wednesday.

News that Hofeller, who helped draw Republican-friendly maps in legislatures around the country, would again work the the GOP majority here set Democrats abuzz.

Lewis called him "the guy I have the most confidence in" when it comes to drawing new maps. Bob Phillips, executive director of good-government group North Carolina Common Cause, said Hofeller's involvement "smacks of what we think is the problem."

Asked why Democrats won't have access to the consultant's work, Lewis pointed to legislative rules that allow members to work in secret until after legislation is complete.

"I sincerely hope that the Democrats will engage," he said. "Help us select the criteria, help us draw these maps."

If the majority is sincerely open to suggestions, Phillips said, he hopes legislators will move toward a nonpartisan process along the lines of legislation introduced earlier this year setting up an independent process instead of allowing General Assembly members to draw their own election maps. That bill did not get out of committee during the recent session.

"Well see how it all works," he said. "Cynically, you could say they've already got the maps drawn, and this is all a charade."


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