It's time to fix redistricting. Why not now?

Published October 24, 2019

By Becki Gray

Redistricting calls for leadership, and now is the time for reform.

A three-judge panel is reviewing maps of some of the state’s House and Senate districts, which were drawn by lawmakers to comply with a ruling in Common Cause v Lewis. Plaintiffs in the case claimed “extreme” partisan gerrymandering, the court concurred, and the legislature was ordered to redo the maps.

Using many of the same arguments as plaintiffs in the legislative lawsuit, a new case challenges the state’s 13 congressional districts.  

The redistricting challenges and arguments continue, and new maps may solve the immediate problem raised by plaintiffs. But they won’t solve the underlying problems with redistricting.

What will?  Real reform will. 

Lawmakers each session for decades have filed redistricting bills. It’s time to stop talking about redistricting reform and finally do something about it. Seven redistricting bills were filed this session. Four are sponsored solely by Democrats, and three have bipartisan support.

House Bill 827, Senate Bill 641, House Bill 574, and Senate Bill 673 — sponsored exclusively by Democrats — similarly propose a “citizen redistricting commission.”

House Bill 69, House Bill 140, and House Bill 648 approach redistricting a bit differently, and all have bipartisan support  Given the current House makeup, the proposals with bipartisan support are more likely to get serious consideration.

H.B. 69, which proposes a bipartisan redistricting commission, has 11 Republican sponsors and 54 Democrat sponsors. The measure would place an 11-member commission in charge of drawing the districts — four members from each party with the highest number of registered voters, and three non-affiliated members. Legislators from both parties would submit nominees to the commission, who would be appointed through a random selection by the state auditor. This newly created appointed commission would hold public hearings and draw maps. The legislature would vote up or down, without the option to make changes. If the General Assembly rejects the maps, then the commission would redraw them.

Like House Bill 69, H.B. 648 creates a bipartisan redistricting commission. Five Republicans and 20 Democrats have signed on as sponsors. House and Senate leaders of each major party would appoint eight members — four from each party — to the commission. Those eight members select an additional three unaffiliated members who haven’t voted  consecutively in a primary over the past five years. An expert would draw the maps, and the commission would choose the map to submit to the General Assembly, which could make changes before final legislative approval. 

Seventeen Republicans and 44 Democrats sponsor H.B. 140, which clarifies how redistricting should be done in two significant yet different ways. One, it sets rules/standards/criteria already recognized by the courts, and it would put those rules into our state constitution by a vote of the people. Two, it puts a process in place in which professional legislative staff would draw maps, which would go before a nonpartisan review board. The General Assembly would give final approval, ensuring the constitutionally recognized body directed to conduct redistricting actually does it, and not the courts. It’s similar to the system used in Iowa and, because it authorizes a constitutional amendment, H.B. 140 would require a three-fifths majority vote — 72 votes in the House; 30 in the Senate. 

Redistricting reform is the insurance policy both sides need to ensure a fair playing field; limits on endless, expensive litigation; and the assurance of election integrity voters want and deserve. Implementing a fair process, with clearly defined rules, oversight, and accountability, is the shield members of the General Assembly need against future gerrymandering. It’s also what the people of North Carolina demand.

The General Assembly returns to Raleigh Monday to finish its long-session work, which will happen over the next couple of weeks. Lawmakers will probably pass another mini-budget or two, and perhaps address health care reform, regulations for the hemp industry, storm stabilization, and energy grid management. Maybe the Senate will try to override Gov. Roy’s Cooper’s budget veto, as the House has done.  

But redistricting reform must top the to-do list before adjournment.

Seventy-nine House members have signed onto one or more of the proposed redistricting bills this session. The three bi-partisan bills are sitting in the House Redistricting Committee, waiting for a hearing.

The argument has gone on long enough. Yes, Democrats did it when they were in charge, and Republicans have done it as they’ve been in control. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours have been spent challenging and defending districts drawn by the other guy. 

It’s unclear who will be in charge after the 2020 elections, but both sides have a stake in a fair process, and voters have a stake in representative elections. 

It’s time to fix it. How about now?

Becki Gray is senior vice president at the John Locke Foundation.