Can Republican-Sponsored Redistricting Reform Save North Carolina’s Democracy? | North Carolina | Indy Week
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Can Republican-Sponsored Redistricting Reform Save North Carolina’s Democracy? 

click to enlarge Map Quest

Illustration by Shan Stumpf

Map Quest

It's hardly news that North Carolina's legislative and congressional districts are horribly twisted.

Last year, two separate panels of federal judges ruled that the districts—drawn by Republicans after they claimed power in 2010—were in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, as they unconstitutionally packed minority voters to dilute the power of their vote. In February 2016, a federal court ordered the legislature to redraw congressional districts; new primaries took place in June. Then, in November, a federal court told the General Assembly to take another crack at its legislative districts, too.

The deadline was March 15, and new elections were scheduled for this November. But the Supreme Court intervened, putting the special elections on hold while considering the state's appeal. For the time being, gerrymandering reform—at least, the court-mandated variety—has stalled.

But its proponents still see reason for hope. Late last month, four Republican state representatives introduced a bill that goes further than just drawing new maps—a temporary fix subject to the whims of whoever is in power after the 2020 census. Instead, House Bill 200 would establish an independent redistricting commission, appointed by members of both parties, that would take redistricting mostly out of the lawmakers' hands.

While proposed by Republicans, the idea has support across the ideological spectrum, from the libertarian John Locke Foundation to the progressive Democracy NC. For an electorate shackled into safe districts guaranteeing Republican majorities—just as they once ensured a Democratic advantage—HB 200 aims to revive the state's moribund democracy.

But will it? And, with the Republicans who benefit from the current scheme dominating the General Assembly, does it stand any chance of passing?

"The leadership really does not want the bill to move," says Representative Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, a bill sponsor. "I think it'll only occur when Republicans aren't sure that they're going to be in charge and Democrats aren't sure that they're going to be in charge."

Not surprisingly, then, the bill has yet to receive a committee hearing. McGrady thinks he'll have better luck next year, when members are facing reelection.

"We need a way to keep people interested and mobilized in the issue, and we filed the bill to allow that," he says.

To pressure Republican leaders, the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform hosted a Citizens Lobby Day on March 1. The coalition expected maybe 150 people to show up, according to director Jane Pinsky. Six hundred did. Despite the turnout, House leaders declined to meet with the visitors.

"I feel like our politicians are not accountable to the citizens of our state, only the special interests that got them elected," said Amy Johnson, who came to the lobby day from North Raleigh. "It's like the politicians are choosing the voters, instead of the voters choosing the politicians."

Tyler Daye, a student at UNC-Greensboro, grew up in the old House District 12, which snakes tightly along I-85, corralling as many African Americans as possible. "It's a famous district—it's taught in schools as an example of gerrymandering! The [legislature] at the state level and at the federal level does not represent the people," Daye told the INDY. Indeed, in last year's election, Republicans won 53 percent of the total vote for U.S. representatives but secured ten of thirteen seats.

The same pattern holds true in the state legislature. In November, Republicans won 52 percent of the cumulative vote for state representatives but won a veto-proof supermajority of 74 out of 120 seats. Fifty-seven representatives ran unopposed. In the state senate, 56 percent of the vote granted Republicans thirty-five of fifty seats. To Daye, "something is fundamentally wrong with that."

While they benefit from the current map, the Republicans who sponsored HB 200 remember injustices suffered under Democratic leadership.

"When we were in the minority, this bill was something that Republicans generally rallied around, and what I'd say to that is, if it was the right thing then, it is still the right thing now," McGrady said during the lobby day. "We have to serve the people of North Carolina, and we have to make sure they have full confidence in the integrity and fairness of our elections."

"Even though we like many of their policies," added Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, "we don't like this idea of having elected officials choose their voters."

Other states, including Arizona, Florida, and California, have been able to reform redistricting through referenda or ballot initiatives. Each has done so slightly differently. Six states currently use independent commissions. HB 200 seeks to emulate Iowa's model, which is unique in that it calls for five nonpartisan legislative staff members to develop maps without access to political or election data, with the legislature then voting the maps up or down.

Since North Carolina does not offer ballot initiatives or voter referenda, the only real option for reform is for voters to put heat on legislators.

"In the long run," Pinsky says, "this kind of thing really depends on numbers. The more people speak out, the more folks realize that blocking reform is not a popular position; they say, 'I want to get reelected, we have to take this up.'"

But even supposedly independent processes can't guarantee fair elections. That became clear the day after the lobbying event, when Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy hosted a conference on redistricting reform, connecting lawyers, academics, and activists. Ellen Friedin of Fair Districts Florida explained how, after Floridians voted for constitutional amendments stipulating that maps be drawn to avoid partisan advantage, lawmakers were nonetheless able to weasel partisan interests into the process by planting confederates masquerading as citizens; years of court battles finally exposed the trickery.

And it doesn't take any nefarious meddling to skew the results, either. Nick Stephanopoulos, an assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago, presented research showing that even supposedly impartial solutions can be biased. Court-drawn maps have tended to favor Democrats, he said; independent commissions have favored Republicans, though the latter may be due to the geographic distribution of voters. (Democrats tend to cluster in urban areas.)

But proponents argue that the independent commission would be hard-pressed to do a worse job than the legislature has. Emmet Bondurant, who is suing the state over gerrymandering, told the conference that "North Carolina has taken partisanship to a new low. You have racial gerrymanders at the congressional and state legislative levels. You have racial gerrymanders going down to county school board and county commissioner levels."

"For democracy, it's fundamentally no different from breaking into the voting machines and flipping half the Democratic votes," added Josh Brannon, who unsuccessfully challenged Virginia Foxx in the Fifth Congressional District.

For now, the status quo prevails. And for Daye, the UNC-Greensboro student at the Citizens Lobby Day, that means "I don't think we have a true democracy, because the foundation of a democracy is free and fair elections. And if we don't have fair elections, our democracy falls apart."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Map Quest."

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