@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Effort to take politics out of drawing voting maps should gain traction this year, backers say

Posted February 13, 2019 2:43 p.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2019 6:53 p.m. EST

— Bills to end gerrymandering in North Carolina have been filed just about every session for decades but have rarely even gotten a hearing. This year, backers say, things could be different.

North Carolina's voting maps are often held up as an example of extreme partisan redistricting, designed to elect as many Republicans or Democrats as possible. But tools available today let lawmakers do that with laser precision, capturing voters they want and cutting out the ones they don't.

"We've got neighborhoods split up, homeowners associations split up, college students voting in different districts. That can't happen," said Rep. Robert Reives, D-Chatham. "That's the type of thing that makes people feel government's broken."

When lawmakers have safe Republican or safe Democratic districts, they don't have to listen to voters on the other side and eventually become more partisan. Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said gerrymandered districts have created "a volatile and polarized policy environment" and eroded political accountability.

"Constituents should be the ones that pick their lawmakers, not the other way around," McGrady said.

Reives, McGrady and Reps. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, and Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, filed House Bill 69 on Wednesday to take the task of drawing congressional and legislative voting districts out of the hands of the General Assembly and turn it over to an independent 11-person commission.

Although such commissions have been proposed before, McGrady and Reives said two factors are making lawmakers think long and hard about following through on the idea now:

  • Neither party is sure who will control the legislature after the 2020 election and would therefore be in charge of drawing the next set of maps.
  • Lawsuits challenging maps lawmakers have drawn in recent years continue to roll through state and federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in March on whether the congressional map drawn in 2016 was too partisan.

Lawmakers don't want the courts drawing maps for them, Reives said, so now is the time to change the system.

"What you don't want people doing is sitting around looking, 'How do we get the most Democrats in one group? How do we get the most Republicans in one group?'" he said. "When you think about it, if you take those factors out by themselves, you're already down the road to getting real districts."

The redistricting commission would include four Democrats, four Republicans and three people not affiliated with either party. All members would be randomly selected by the State Auditor's Office from a list of 52 nominees compiled by House and Senate Republicans and Democrats.

Nominees cannot have held office, been appointed to a state board, worked on a campaign, worked for a political party or served as a lobbyist within the past five years. Anyone who works for the General Assembly or has financial ties to the governor also would be ineligible to serve on the redistricting commission.

In drawing the maps, the commission would focus on balancing population across districts, splitting as few counties and precincts as possible and making districts geographically. The panel couldn't try to protect incumbents, consider how people voted in past elections or racially gerrymander any districts, according to the bill.

Lawmakers would have to approve the maps without any changes. If they voted the maps down, they would have to provide reasons to the commission, which would then redraw the maps and submit them again for legislative approval.

House Bill 69 is modeled after a system that has been used successfully in Iowa since the early 1980s and has led to some of the nation's most competitive congressional races. Iowa now has two Republican U.S. senators, but three of the state's four U.S. House members are Democrats.

Ten years ago, when they were in the minority, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger proposed an independent redistricting commission for North Carolina, but that changed after they won the majority.

McGrady acknowledged it's tough to get politicians to give up power. Still, he said, this could be the year for change.

"At a point in time where neither the Republicans are sure they're going to be in charge nor the Democrats are sure they're going to be in charge may be the time that both sides finally come together and say we'd prefer to have nonpartisan redistricting," he said.