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Harmony in House, discord in Senate as NC lawmakers approve new district maps

NC Legislature
Colin Campbell
Wikimedia Commons
Leslie Maynor Locklear, left, talks about losing her two sons to opioid overdoses. She joined Republican senators at a news conference on a bill with stricter criminal penalties for opioid dealers.

The good news is legislators at the North Carolina General Assembly will meet Friday's court-ordered deadline to submit replacement congressional and state legislative district maps for judicial review. The bad news is there is still a lot of partisan rancor around the redistricting process, at least in the state Senate.

A new state House district map emerged from that chamber on Wednesday with near unanimity. However, the two maps drawn up by the Senate's Republican majority had a much rockier journey to passage on Thursday. The state Senate district map and a congressional district plan squeaked through both chambers along party-line votes.

Two weeks ago, a majority of the state Supreme Court struck down district maps for being unconstitutionally gerrymandered with extreme partisan bias by the legislature's Republican majority. The court found the maps were designed to lock in GOP dominance for the next decade despite partisan balance statewide.

Lawmakers did 'exactly' what the court asked them to do, GOP leader said

Lawmakers had to scramble to produce maps using analytical tools like the mean-median difference and efficiency gap scores to create voting districts that would be more competitive and responsive to changes in demographics and voter trends.

"We've done exactly what the court asked us to do," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) told reporters Thursday after his chamber passed the remedial congressional and state Senate district maps along party lines.

Earlier Thursday, in a Senate Redistricting Committee meeting, Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell) told his colleagues the new congressional map was drawn to comply with the Supreme Court's order.

"It contains what we believe will be four of the most highly competitive congressional districts in the country," Daniel added. He claimed the map creates six GOP-safe districts, four Democratic-safe districts, and four toss-up districts.

According to expert analyses, the U.S. House district map that was struck down would have delivered Republicans at least 10 of the state's 14 congressional seats, even though Democratic candidates for Congress in 2020 won more votes overall than Republicans.

Democrats say Republicans are still gerrymandering maps

But Democrats like Sen. Ben Clark (Cumberland, Hoke) dispute the GOP's assessment of the proposed remedial maps.

Clark criticized the Republican-drawn remedial map for splitting precincts — otherwise known as voter tabulation districts or VTDs — as well as counties too many times. Back in August, lawmakers adopted criteria for the redistricting process and pledged to avoid splitting counties and VTDs except where needed to comply with equal population requirements.

But Clark noted that in the remedial congressional map, GOP lawmakers split VTDs 15 times whereas he had an alternative map that only split VTDs 13 times. Clark noted, too, that he drew up an alternative map that would split fewer counties than the GOP remedial map.

The Republican majority used a parliamentary procedure on Thursday to squash any discussion or debate on Clark's and other Democrats' amendments, forcing an up-or-down vote on the GOP replacement map.

"What we have is, essentially, a gateway to a gerrymander," Clark said of the Republicans' remedial congressional map.

"The voters that go cast their ballots do so because they want to feel like their votes are meaningful," said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) during floor debate Thursday on the remedial state Senate district map. "Unfortunately, the maps before us still [diminish] the will of our people."

One example Chaudhuri cited was the way a predominantly Democratic area of northern Wake County is sliced away and attached to more conservative-leaning Granville County to form Senate District 18.

Top Republican blames Democrats for communication breakdown

But Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said it's Democrats who were unwilling to compromise in the remedial redistricting process. He told reporters on Thursday that Republicans had gone so far as to set aside a room for lawmakers from both parties to discuss districts the high court found to be problematic.

Berger maintained that Democrats never engaged in dialogue but rather presented their own ultimatums aimed at giving them more power.

"So I do think it's a little disingenuous on the part of the Democrats to say that there was no negotiation and there was no collaboration," Berger said. "We attempted to do that and so I'm very disappointed in how that has been characterized."

In a news release, Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue praised the bipartisanship on the House side if only to highlight the discord in his chamber.

“I applaud the House leadership’s commitment to compromise on the House map," Blue said in his statement. "The near-unanimous vote told the story: Democrats and Republicans rolled up their sleeves and passed a bipartisan district map that is fair, proportional, and provides opportunity for growth over the next decade."

Blue also acknowledged some effort by Senate Republicans to reach out to Democrats but questioned their sincerity.

“While Senate Republicans did offer us a last minute compromise in Wake, New Hanover and Mecklenburg counties, their overall strategy has been simple: box in Senate Democrats from gaining more than 21 seats for the next decade," Blue said.

Now the maps go before a trial court panel tasked with assessing the remedial plans' compliance with the state Constitution and the redistricting standards set by the state Supreme Court in its ruling. The trial court has appointed three former North Carolina jurists as Special Masters to assist in the review process.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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