Voters from one side of North Carolina to the other have voiced support for an independent redistricting commission to replace the current process of the political party in power creating maps that favor their candidates. It remains to be seen if the current litigation-shackled congressional boundaries are a catalyst to that change.
“The long-term influence of this process may be to create a fairer process,” Chris Cooper, head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, said of the congressional remapping imbroglio in which a federal court struck down the state’s 1st and 12th districts as racially gerrymandered.
That is the hope expressed by many of the North Carolina voters who turned out to present testimony at a public hearing via teleconference at several sites around the state amid an icy winter storm on Feb. 15.
“We need to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission” similar to other states where such systems are functioning,” Tom Byers of Asheville testified. “The General Assembly could retain a veto power over the commission’s work” so it wouldn’t abdicate all responsibility.
“I want you to take the issue up in the next election” and join other states to devise a nonpartisan commission “based on expertise, based on the capabilities that our new technology has,” said Susan Bullock of Wilmington.
That theme echoed throughout Democrats’ debates in ensuing days as the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting met to determine mapping changes ordered by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina, and the General Assembly convened in special session to enact legislation by a Feb. 19 deadline.
Building an independent redistricting commission from scratch would be “a massive, wholesale, transformative change to the way we do this stuff,” said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.
“You’re not going to do that in a week, and [Republican leadership] didn’t really have the appetite to deal with a big, big change like that” during the special session, despite repeated calls by the minority Democrats to pursue that path, Taylor said.
However, “by virtue of the fact that it came up quite a lot in debate, that there were a lot of people testifying to the fact that North Carolina should change the way it’s doing it, and have some sort of bipartisan, possibly even nonlegislative commission do this,” the concept could gain traction, Taylor said.
While the voting public doesn’t follow these sorts of policy debates closely, people are aware a federal court ruled the maps as they existed since being redrawn in 2011 unconstitutional, and that also could give proponents of redistricting reform “tremendous energy and momentum going forward,” Taylor said.
“They’re a long way from getting North Carolina to change the way it draws congressional and state legislative lines, but certainly I think it’s a meaningful step on that path,” he said.
Despite the turmoil that resulted with a separate congressional primary on June 7, voter and candidate confusion from redrawn districts, and millions of dollars of cost to the state, David Rohde, a Duke University political science professor specializing in American campaigns, elections, and legislative politics, said the federal court decision could inspire optimism that redistricting reform is at hand.
“I think there are a lot of observers who would say ‘Great. As a matter of fact let’s guarantee we don’t do that [racial gerrymandering]. We’ll create an independent commission, and they’ll draw the districts, and we’ll take the state legislature out of it completely.’ An increasing number of states have done that,” Rohde said.
“I don’t think that’s what they [majority Republicans] have in mind,” he said.
A strong argument opponents of an independent commission would make is they “don’t have the consequence that a lot of people think they ought to have, that is predicted that they would have. They don’t have that much of an effect,” Rohde said. “You still get very polarized legislative divisions.”
For example, an independent commission system “hasn’t altered the kind of delegation that’s been selected from California, either from liberal versus conservative or Democrat versus Republican,” Rohde said. “We haven’t had a lot of history yet … but at least the results so far is that the effects have been minimal.”
House Speaker Pro Tem Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, the dean of North Carolina’s legislative movement to adopt an independent redistricting commission, is under no illusion such a system would be a panacea, and said as much at a Nov. 11 public forum [ https://www.carolinajournal.com/news-article/redistricting-reform-unlikely-in-short-session/ ] at N.C. State.
But he supports the concept, and has introduced several bills over the years aimed at establishing it, because, among other things, he believes it is improper for sitting legislators to wield the power to guarantee their perpetuity in office.
Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, who also has sponsored an independent redistricting commission bill, spoke forcefully during the final day of the special session about the need to abandon partisan redistricting in favor of a nonpartisan approach.
“Any Democrat that gets up and tells you Democrats have not participated in partisan gerrymandering doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” Martin said.
“But that’s a very 20th century way of looking at things,” and not what 21st century North Carolina voters want to hear, Martin said.
“People are turning away from your party and mine,” Martin said, inflating the ranks of independent voters who don’t want to see partisan gerrymanders “like the Democrats used to do, and like the Republicans are doing now.”
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.