RALEIGH — Gerrymandering, the illegal practice of manipulating voting districts to favor a political party, has plagued North Carolina’s constituency for decades. But a group of Democrats, led by …
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RALEIGH — Gerrymandering, the illegal practice of manipulating voting districts to favor a political party, has plagued North Carolina’s constituency for decades. But a group of Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Rep. Robert Reives II of Goldston, is proposing an amendment to state law that would shift redistricting authority from the General Assembly to an independent commission.
“We need a better process,” said Reives, whose district includes all of Chatham and parts of Durham County. “I feel that a commission is probably our best bet, but my position is that whatever ideas anybody has that will make this process a fairer process than it was 10 years ago, I’m game for ... I’m good for any idea that gives us criteria that’s non-partisan.”
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.
How state legislatures redistrict varies, however. In North Carolina, the General Assembly itself performs decennial redistricting and, historically, the majority party has drawn lines to benefit its interests.
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 the issue is not strictly Republican, according to Reives.
“I don’t think it’s reflected well on either party,” he said. “It’s just been such a bad back and forth.”
When Democrats held majority power, Reives said, they also drew unfair districts and, ironically, Republicans called for amendment to the process.
“One of the bills I introduced in the last session was House Bill 69,” he said, “which actually mimics for the most part a bill that was earlier filed by then Minority Leader Phil Berger.”
At the time, Democrats — in control of the General Assembly — were uninterested. But soon thereafter, power flipped, and with it the parties exchanged their opinions on redistricting.
With this latest proposal, though — House Bill 437, or the “Fair Maps Act” — Reives hopes the parties can unify.
If the bill passes, it will have an immediate effect on North Carolina’s voting districts which are due for evaluation this year. The redistricting process has yet to begin as Census data was delayed by the pandemic.
“If it were to pass, it would change the law and it would go into effect the minute that it is passed,” Reives said. “... Frankly, though, I don’t know that there’s anything that indicates it’s going to get passed this time around.”
But next year that could change. If the amendment, or some version of it, were to pass during the General Assembly’s 2022 session, it would arrive after this year’s redistricting process concludes. The law, then, would not likely have any effect until the next redistricting cycle in 2031 — a fact that could make it easier for some legislators to back a change.
“We’ll see,” Reives said. “But I do think that we’re working better, in a more bipartisan fashion.”
Reives has not put any of his Republican peers “on the spot” to evaluate their stance, he said, but he has been encouraged by a mutual desire to improve the system and avoid gerrymandering.
“I’ve been very pleased with discussions that I have had with leadership about their desire to make sure that we make fair processes,” Reives said. “It’s just that we happen to disagree right now about what the most fair process would be.”
According to Reives, a common argument in support of legislative redistricting authority is that General Assembly members bring an “expertise” that is absent among regular voters.
“Maybe that was true 200 years ago,” he said, when cartography was still a refined skill. “But today, I could give my 9-year-old the software and he could draw good maps. So it’s a little disingenuous for us to say that there’s something that we’ve gotten or some expertise that we’ve got, that makes us better at drawing maps.”
Another argument contends that an independent redistricting commission will not depoliticize the process — it will only endow a group of politically-motivated voters with a power that should fall to elected representatives who are under oath to best serve North Carolina residents.
Reives strongly disagrees with that premise.
“If you look at the way we put this commission together, it’s a completely diverse commission. Nobody gets any advantage whatsoever,” he said. “I think it’s cynical to take the position that, ‘Well, politics is everywhere.’ Because when you really think about it, if you talk to the general public about a lot of these issues, the general public — voters — are nowhere near as partisan as our elected officials are right now.”
In last year’s General Assembly session, Reives sponsored seven bills to amend the redistricting process. None were given serious consideration. But his commitment to amending the system is indefatigable, and he vows to maintain his enthusiasm for change even if Democrats retake control in coming years.
“I discussed this last year when we weren’t even sure who was going to be in the majority this year,” Reives said. “To me, if we had gotten into the majority this year, it was still just as important that this get passed because it shouldn’t be about party. It’s time to break the cycle.”
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @dldolder.