Redistricting reformers hopeful about legislation

Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press
In this Feb. 26, 2018, file photo, an American flag hangs inside the rotunda of the Idaho Capitol in Boise, Idaho.

Raleigh, N.C. – Lawmakers who want to reform the redistricting process in North Carolina say uncertainty over pending map litigation and the shaky balance of power at the legislature make them more optimistic their ideas will be voted on this year.

House Democrats and Republicans filed legislation on Wednesday that would create an 11-member “nonpartisan” redistricting commission. The panel would propose new legislative and congressional maps to the General Assembly after each decennial census, the next one of which occurs in 2020. Lawmakers have filed similar bills in previous years, unsuccessfully.

The House and Senate revise and approve General Assembly and congressional districts based on population changes from the census. For generations, majority parties have pushed through maps favoring their sides. When they were in the minority 10 years ago, many Republicans supported the idea of the commission. In the years since regaining General Assembly control, they largely have set the proposal aside.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, said both political and legal uncertainties may make GOP leaders more willing to consider the idea now. Democrats made enough seat gains in November to put in doubt which party would control redistricting in 2021, McGrady said.

It’s “maybe the time that both sides finally come together and say we prefer to have nonpartisan redistricting as opposed to have the other party be completely in charge of the system,” McGrady said at a news conference with groups that back a redistricting overhaul. McGrady said colleagues also don’t like the idea of judges making redistricting decisions.

GOP maps have been almost continuously subject to lawsuits since 2011. Maps were redrawn after courts ruled some of the districts had been illegally gerrymandered along racial lines. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit arguing that the congressional lines contain excessive partisan bias.

“Prevailing in those court decisions is not the full solution,” said Bob Phillips of the North Carolina chapter of Common Cause, which filed partisan gerrymandering lawsuits. “The full solution is having a redistricting reform bill pass.”

Voters in Michigan, Missouri, Utah and Colorado approved ballot referendums in November to use independent map-drawers, and Virginia’s Republican House speaker said last month he now supports the idea, citing lengthy court battles over lines in his state.

In North Carolina, current House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger are among Republicans who co-sponsored commission legislation during the 2000s. Democrats controlled the legislature for most of that decade and also saw their maps struck down by courts.

Berger has said repeatedly in recent years that he doesn’t believe a commission would improve the system. Moore, who was among those voting for a bill to create a commission that passed the House in 2011, said Wednesday that he expects McGrady’s measure will get a hearing but doesn’t personally see a need for a change.

“At the end of the day, drawing legislative districts is an inherently political process,” Moore said, adding that even with a commission, “you’re never going to take politics out of politics.”

The commission in Wednesday’s bill would be composed of four registered Democrats, four Republicans and three from neither party. Legislative leaders would submit dozens of nominees, who would be chosen for the commission at random. The commission wouldn’t be allowed to use political data in drawing maps, and the maps would be subject to the approval of the legislature.

Bill sponsors say the current method for drawing maps contributes to more polarized politics, creating safe districts that discourage legislators from working with opponents. Democratic Rep. Robert Reives of Chatham County, another bill sponsor, acknowledged that his party also approved gerrymandered maps when it was in charge.

“We’ve got the chance to address the problem now,” Reives said. “I think all of us would agree it’s a dire problem at this time.”