Independent commission improbable for this year’s redistricting, N.C. lawmakers say

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RALEIGH — Despite tenuous optimism that North Carolina’s General Assembly might divest itself of unmitigated authority to redraw legislative district maps, lawmakers now say the odds of assigning an independent commission of voters to oversee the process are virtually nil.

Every 10 years, following receipt of new Census data, states must evaluate and adjust their voting districts. Congress mandates that districts have roughly equal populations and must not discriminate based on race or ethnicity. The decennial redistricting arrives this year, and will begin after Census data arrives sometime around September.

There’s no federal law, however, stipulating state legislators must perform the redistricting process themselves. Some states have adopted new procedures by which independent commissions of voters draw maps. The idea is to prevent gerrymandering — the illegal practice of manipulating voting districts to favor a political party.

“The temptation is, when you’re of the party that’s in the majority, to think that you want to have your folks just draw districts willy-nilly to your benefit,” House Minority Leader Robert Reives II (D-Dist. 54) told the News + Record. “But the truth of the matter is, no matter which side you’re on, if you’re in the majority or the minority, you’re really better off if the districts are evened up.”

Gerrymandered districts have come to help define North Carolina’s politics. For example, in 2011, a newly Republican-controlled legislature pushed voting districts that were widely decried as unjust and partisan. The issue launched several court cases, the most recent of which concluded just last year. In at least two instances, a panel of judges deemed the districts unconstitutional and required the General Assembly to revise them.

But gerrymandering is not a one-party crime. Historically, the party holding majority power in the General Assembly — Republican or Democratic — has drawn lines in its favor.

“Unfortunately, every time one of us gets the majority — at least that we’ve seen over the last 20 years,” Reives said, “that party does what’s best for them and nobody pulls the trigger to go ahead and get some type of redistricting that’s a more fair representation of what the state looks like.”

To suspend the back-and-forth, many have suggested voters assume authority over the redistricting process. A House Bill this session called the “Fair Maps Act” proposed to delegate responsibility to an independent commission of constituents. Reives, a Goldston resident whose district includes all of Chatham County and part of Durham County, was a primary sponsor. But as 2021’s redistricting comes into focus, it’s become clear that a dramatic shift in process will probably not happen.

“In theory, it could change at any time,” Reives said. “That’s definitely an option that’s on the table, and obviously a lot of people would love to see that. But really, when it comes down to it, it’s just unlikely anything will change ... Leadership hasn’t changed, and there’s no reason to believe their position would have changed on independent redistricting. If anybody was a fan of independent redistricting, they would have done it last term ­— so there’s no reason to believe they’d really do it now.”

In a meeting last Tuesday, General Assembly Republicans entertained comments from Bob Phillips, executive director of the anti-gerrymandering group Common Cause North Carolina. In his address, Phillips acknowledged that major reform would probably not “be considered this year.”

“The practice of gerrymandering is almost as old as the nation itself, and arguably no state does it worse than us,” he said, as first reported by the News & Observer of Raleigh. “We the people are sidelined from this process because it’s about one thing — and that’s maximizing the districts for the party in power. It’s what’s always been done in North Carolina, and it’s always been wrong.”

According to election experts, Phillips’ analysis of North Carolina’s gerrymandering problem is no exaggeration. As first reported by the News + Record, researchers at Princeton University have concluded that no other redistricting process around the county introduces as much bias as North Carolina’s.

“We see the legislature having control to get whatever lines they want passed in the next redistricting cycle,” Hannah Wheelen, senior analyst and project manager of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, previously told the News + Record. “And so I think that’s what’s different, that’s what makes North Carolina feel so much worse. And it’s also combined with a history where North Carolina has been able to do this and it’s been part of the politics for so long.”

But unwillingness from the Republican-majority legislature to relinquish its power — reminiscent of former Democrat-led legislatures’ similar disinclination — doesn’t mean this year’s redistricting process cannot improve, according to Reives.

“The president pro tem (Phil Berger (R-Dist. 30)) has stated that he’d like to see a process that is basically the process we went through during the last court ordered redraw, which was in 2019,” Reives said. “And so that would give much more transparency than we had in 2011 — still some areas, of course, where there could be even more transparency, but definitely a better process than in 2011.”

The 2019 court-ordered redistricting followed a lawsuit which Phillips’ Common Cause spearheaded. It was conducted in the public eye and achieved a fairer result than North Carolina had seen in years.

“There were a couple of forums throughout the state,” Reives said. “And the most transparency in my opinion came from the fact that exchanges between (legislators) on the floor and things like that were all done in a committee room. The drawings were done in a committee room, and all of it was recorded, available through live streaming. So, people had a chance to make comments and things like that through the process.”

Republicans seemed to affirm in last Tuesday’s meeting a commitment to mimicking 2019’s process. Pat Ryan, a spokesperson for Berger, said the president pro tem still “thinks the 2019 redistricting process was one worth emulating to the extent possible,” the N&O reported.

But to Reives, such steps are only a start toward rectifying decades of political sleight of hand.

“It would certainly be better,” he said. “But I hope people are paying attention because this is a real issue. What would be ideal to me is if people would ever make the connection on both sides of the aisle that it benefits everybody to have maps that are fair.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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