A group of bipartisan representatives are working together to improve North Carolina's redistricting process. For decades, North Carolina legislators have been tasked with redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines every 10 years, after the results of the census are released. Whichever political party is in control during the process, is historically accused of gerrymandering the districts for the benefit of their own party.
With the legality of the latest redistricting process being disputed in court, House Bill 606 was introduced in hopes of preventing such accusations in the future. Democrats and Republicans in the North Carolina House of Representatives are working together to take on the responsibility of redrawing district lines out of legislators hands and to employ an independent nonpartisan commission to make the changes.
Republican legislative gains in 2010 made it possible for them to draw election districts a year later and build on those gains in the 2012 elections.
Last year after redistricting was implemented, Republicans gained three congressional seats and now hold nine of the state’s 13. In the state's General Assembly, the party gained veto-proof, super majorities in the House and Senate.
Wake County Republican Paul Stam, Cumberland County Democrat Rick Glazier, Henderson County Republican Chuck McGrady, and Wake County Democrat Deborah Ross are the bill's primary sponsors. Since being introduced in early April, the bipartisan bill has garnered 57 co-sponsors including Jackson County Democrat Joe Sam Queen.
“Having non-partisan redistricting is good for North Carolina,” said Queen. “It will end the cycle of each party trying to get back at the other and drawing lines that benefit one or the other. This is a fair bill with great bipartisan backing and I am glad to be supporting it.”
According to bill supporters, under House Bill 606, politics would be taken out of the process entirely and district lines would be based on geography and population density. The proposed changes call for the creation of a temporary redistricting advisory commission and Legislative Service Office.
The commission would be made up of four people selected by House and Senate leaders from the majority and minority parties. The four nominees would then choose a fifth person to be the chairman.
The five-member advisory commission would draw the lines without consideration for “voter registration statistics, past election results and racial statistics, except as required by the federal Voting Rights Act.”
The Legislative Services Office would use data obtained to prepare necessary descriptions of geographical and political units for which census data will be reported and which are suitable for use as components of legislative districts. The entity would also prepare maps of counties, cities, precincts and other geographical units with the state which may be used to illustrate the locations of legislative district boundaries proposed in plans drawn in accordance with the bill.
The bill then calls for lawmakers to vote on the plan presented by the Legislative Services Offices. If a plan is rejected, staff would draw another. If two more plans were rejected, lawmakers could draw their own.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Chris Cooper, director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University. “Our district lines are notorious for being drawn with partisan purposes in mind. Both parties engage in this process when they're in power. I support any effort to try to draw fairer districts.”
Macon County native and Young Democrat of North Carolina National Committeeman Justin Conley believes that House Bill 606 could do nothing but build on the integrity of the state. “Anyone who doesn't believe that partisan gerrymandering gave the GOP control of the state government probably doesn't believe in gravity because it's just a theory. With all the ... bills being brought before the Republican-led General Assembly this House Bill is great legislation. In 2012, Democrats for Congress received more votes than Republicans, yet we have nine to four Republican majority representation in the U.S. House. Nationally we only have around 30 competitive races out of 435 seats; and in North Carolina we have very few competitive House or Senate races. Lawmakers should have to garner support from people across the political spectrum to win office, not cater to the extreme wing of their base to win a primary in a noncompetitive race. The byproduct of this would be better more representative and effective public servants and maybe even higher approval ratings.”
Although legislation similar to House Bill 606 has been introduced in the past but has failed to be passed by both the House and the Senate, this legislation stands to change the state's redistricting process for the better according to Cooper.
“This is an impressive step forward for this legislature,” said Cooper. “The people of North Carolina overwhelmingly support redistricting reform and this might be a rare issue that will draw Republican and Democratic support and will positively impact the way we govern for decades.
Cooper noted that the bill's greatest challenge would be garnering support from Republican leaders.
“Convincing fellow Republicans — who are in charge — that they should support a bill that could potentially reduce their probability of reelection,” he said. “The legislative process is difficult to predict, but I have some hope that this might be successful. If this were a solely Democratic proposal, I would not have much hope, but the Republicans in the House seem to be behind it.”
Cooper noted that while the new legislation is intended to silence the gerrymandering accusations, it may not fix the problem completely. “It wouldn't stop it, but it would certainly help. The current system would be akin to allowing the Super Bowl champion to decide all of the rules for the next 10 years,” he said.
Macon County Republican Senator Jim Davis is not in favor of House Bill 606 and does not believe it will pass in the Senate.
“We do not need an independent commission to decide on redistricting,” said Davis on Monday. “Ever since the redistricting case went to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2002, then to the U.S. Supreme Court, there is a mathematical formula to figure it out. There are voting rights laws and county provisions in the North Carolina constitution and a plus-or-minus five percent figures that have to go into account for those types of things. It is impossible to do any gerrymandering these days. I don't know how far the bill will get because it is redundant. Even though it has bipartisan support, we just don't need it."
As the Senator for the state's 50th District, Davis saw slight changes as part of the 2011 redistricting process. On the Senate map, the 50th District consolidates all seven counties of Western North Carolina with no counties divided. Transylvania County was no longer included, but all of Haywood County was. Congressional and State districts across the state were redrawn and when the 2012 elections ended, results showed that Republicans swept the majority of the available seats.
If House Bill 606 passes both the House and the Senate, the first time it will be used is following the 2020 federal decennial census.