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Court Battles Continue Over NC Political Maps Amid Independent Redistricting Trend

Rusty Jacobs

In a time-crunched, court-ordered process, the North Carolina General Assembly recently redrew the state's legislative district maps to be used in next year's elections. A Wake County Superior Court had found the Republican-controlled legislature had gerrymandered dozens of House and Senate districts for extreme partisan advantage. The redrawn maps are now under court review.

While many people praised the court-ordered process as more transparent than past redistricting efforts in the state, many of those same people said it was still too partisan with lawmakers doing the redrawing. But with the 2020 Census and a new round of redistricting ahead, there's no guarantee North Carolina will join a national trend towards independent redistricting.

If one party can use a temporary advantage in a redistricting year to make it into a lasting advantage that lasts for the entire decade, then it can control the policy-setting agenda for 10 years at a time. -Yurij Rudensky

Last year, voters in Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Utah and Michigan – red and blue states – approved initiatives to rid the redistricting process of partisanship.

"All too often, unfortunately, when politicians draw the lines it's the representatives choosing their voters," said Prof. Justin Levitt, who teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and runs the web site All About Redistricting.

"And a lot of people, increasingly, think that that's part of the reason... why they feel disconnected from their representatives. Why they feel their representatives aren't listening to them," he added.

North Carolina is a prime candidate for redistricting, according to Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"It's a very populous state. It's got a lot of really distinct communities when you're thinking about coastal Carolina versus Appalachia versus the cities," Rudensky said. "It's a racially diverse state. It's incredibly dynamic in its growth and the communities are changing."

But because North Carolina is a potential battleground state, Rudensky says it heightens the stakes for locking in partisan advantage through the dark art of gerrymandering.

"If one party can use a temporary advantage in a redistricting year to make it into a lasting advantage that lasts for the entire decade, then it can control the policy-setting agenda for 10 years at a time," he explained.

Redistricting Reform Can Happen In Many Ways

There are a number of ways to reform redistricting. One example is letting a state legislature do it but prohibiting lawmakers from relying on partisan data and past election results in drawing the maps.

Another example would be establishing a citizen's commission to do it, as California voters chose to do in 2008. California's commission consists of five members from the state's largest party, five from the second largest party, and four unaffiliated members.

Applicants cannot have held statewide office, worked as a legislative staffer, served as a party official, and may not be related to anyone who has done any of those things. And commission members may not account for incumbency in drawing California's maps.

In 2012, that pit two established Democratic incumbent congressmen against one another, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. California's Democratic machine had kept the incumbents out of each others' way with gerrymandered lines.

"That pairing, which actually served the community, would never have happened in a world dominated by one political party," Levitt said.

Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC
State Sen. Erica Smith (D-District 3), sponsor of a redistricting reform bill.

In North Carolina's recent court-ordered redistricting process, lawmakers were allowed to take reasonable steps to protect incumbents.

In 2018, state Sen. Erica Smith was the only North Carolina Democrat in her chamber that was put into a new district and paired with a Republican opponent. The newly-drawn district was geographically bigger and included Beaufort County, which was about 75% white and about 67% Republican.

Smith, who is black, won the race with 53% of the vote. In her previously drawn district she got 90%. But Smith said running in a more competitive district makes her a better public servant.

"You're going to have to work with people who don't look like you. You're going to have to work with people that may not have your same political ideology or anything else. And so what do you do in that situation? You become an effective legislator," she said.

Smith has sponsored a redistricting reform bill that, like California's measure, has stringent conflict-of-interest provisions. The measure is stuck in committee.

State Rep. David Lewis once supported redistricting reform legislation, back in 2009when the Harnett County Republican was a member of the North Carolina General Assembly's minority party.

Credit Rusty Jacobs, WUNC
State Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) chairs the House Redistricting Committee.

"I believe that the only proper place for the maps to be drawn is within the Legislature. I think that we have proven that we can do so without looking at partisan data and without partisan intent," said Lewis, who is now in the majority and chairs the House Redistricting Committee.

Lewis hailed the court-ordered process North Carolina lawmakers just went through, using base maps created by a University of Michigan political science professor with small changes to accommodate incumbency. If voters don't like the results, Lewis said, they can express their opinions at the polls.

Asked how he squares that position with his one-time support for a citizens' redistricting commission, Lewis said: "Frankly, I know more. I feel I'm more informed about how difficult this process was than I was as a relatively new member of the minority party in 2009. I think I've learned a lot since then and, frankly, my views on a lot of issues... have changed."

State Rep. Chuck McGrady offered a more cynical take on why legislative members of a controlling party – any party  – would oppose independent redistricting.

"I mean, there's nothing more political than redistricting," the five-term GOP lawmaker said.

McGrady is a Republican budget chair in the state House and a sponsor of two redistricting reform bills with bi-partisan support among rank-and-file members. He said he returned to the Legislature for one final term for the primary purpose of taking another stab at changing the way North Carolina draws political boundaries.

Recalling unsuccessful attempts in the past, includingone in 2011 supported by then House Speaker, now U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, McGrady said now's the best chance to pass redistricting reform legislation for a few reasons, including uncertainty about which party will be in charge following redistricting in 2021 and the prospect of more litigation.

"We're hoping that finally people will say 'Look, we need to do this differently'," he said.

The past suggests that once a political party seizes power – Republican or Democrat  – its leaders lose their appetite for redistricting reform.

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