Senate Redistricting Committee Chairman Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican who is leading the effort to redraw electoral maps for state and congressional offices this year, is quick to tout the process as "more open and transparent than any time before."
This is the first time in a century that the Grand Old Party has been in charge of the process, leading Rucho to boast, "We're going to show you how to do it."
To underscore his pitch, he points to 36 public hearings streamed online during the next three weeks spanning from Jackson County in the west to Dare in the east. Rucho says this effort is "probably the largest in the history of redistricting in North Carolina."
But what he doesn't tell you is that all those citizens are giving input without having draft maps to review. Rucho does not plan to unveil the suggested lines until after the final public hearing on May 9. He aims to have the maps approved by the General Assembly and submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for pre-clearance by June 1. Gov. Beverly Perdue has no veto over redistricting.
That time line leaves those wishing to comment "shooting in the dark," says Jessica Holmes, redistricting organizer for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a member of the grassroots Alliance for Fair Redistricting and Minority Voting Rights.
"It's really hard for the public to give meaningful input without being able to see a draft map," Holmes says. "People can talk at them all day, but if we don't have a finished product to critique, it's hard for comments to be truly insightful."
The challenge was obvious at the public hearing held last week at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, where two dozen Durham residents addressed Rucho and four other Senate and House redistricting committee members in a videoconference with Lee and Vance counties.
"We are here to hear from you. We are not here to answer questions. We are not here drawing maps," Rucho informed the public. "What we are here for is to basically hear your thoughts and dreams about redistricting."
What followed was a mishmash of demands for fairness, nonpartisanship and transparency, suggestions to keep Durham's districts intact and reminders about the Voting Rights Act and the importance of maintaining and expanding minority representation.
There was also healthy criticism for the Voter ID Bill, the Republican-backed measure which requires citizens to present state-issued identification to receive a ballot. Some participants termed the legislation an act of voter dilution that makes it difficult for them to trust the fairness of redistricting.
Resident Judy Womack challenged the committee, "If you don't do the right thing, we are going to look like a bunch of yahoos."
Harris Johnson said he's voted in three congressional districts but hasn't moved. "Changes should be very minor and not be political and not designed to change the districts or representatives that are here," said Johnson, a former state Democratic Party official.
Redistricting staffers passed out the legislators' handbook, which includes census data and key case law that guides the process.
But no proposed maps.
"I would like to request that before any decisions are made that you come back to this community with the plan and let us give our opinion at that time as well," said Kate Fellman, coordinator for the Durham People's Alliance.
Rucho offered a simple "thank you for your comments" to each speaker.
After the hearing, Senate Redistricting Committee member Floyd McKissick Jr., D-Durham, said, "Durham is an exceedingly active community with citizens who are concerned about redistricting and who want to be sure it takes place in a fair and equitable manner."
Asked if he's confident that will be achieved, McKissick, one of five Democrats on the 15-member committee, replied, "It's yet to be determined."
Holmes says that to achieve fairness the group must host the same number of public hearings after the maps are drawn, giving citizens ample time to review and respond. "Have we made clear we want those maps produced? Yes, but it doesn't seem they have expressed any intent to produce maps before May 9," she said.
As the redistricting effort plays out, three bills aiming to reform the state's map-drawing methods are working their way through the General Assembly.
House Bill 783, brought forward by Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, would create a commission with members appointed by the Chief Justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, the governor and Senate and House leadership to draw the lines. The bill rests in the House Committee on Elections.
The same committee is considering House Bill 824, bipartisan legislation that would use Iowa as a guide for redistricting. As in the Hawkeye State, nonpartisan legislative staff would be responsible for producing the maps and the General Assembly votes with a straight yes or no. Iowa has used this method since 1980.
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, says the Iowa model offers a stark contrast to North Carolina's litigious redistricting history and removes the "100-pound gorilla in the Legislature," meaning politicians no longer can use redistricting as a bargaining chip for other legislation.
"It's removed it from being a contentious issue," said Phillips, who helped draft the bill. "Democrats and Republicans in Iowa trust and accept the process. They've never had a lawsuit. It has always worked. The staff plan has always been eventually adopted."
Senate Bill 591, sponsored by Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, and Sen. Louis Pate, R-Greene, proposes an independent citizens commission with four Democrats, four Republicans and three unaffiliated voters who have never run for office or acted as a lobbyist.
Kinnaird has introduced the bill in previous sessions without luck, but she hopes to "spark a discussion by everyone in the state about what is the function of redistricting."
Brent Laurenz, coordinator for North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, says he supports both HB 824 and SB 591 as a means to "take politics out of the process."
He said, "Either one would accomplish that and be better than what we have now, which is the worst possible system."
Correction (April 27, 2011): In print, the second reference to SB 591 cited the incorrect bill number.