Members of the public say their testimony was distorted in Senate redistricting process
Published November 9, 2021
By Lynn Bonner
Maurice Holland Jr. laughed ruefully when he heard that a Republican Senate redistricting leader used Holland’s comments to justify a newly drawn congressional district.
The district, which includes part of the Sandhills, that Republicans drew is the opposite of what Holland wanted.
“It’s a farce,” Holland said in an interview with Policy Watch.
This week, Sen. Warren Daniel, one of his chamber’s redistricting chairmen, mentioned the names of 10 people whose comments he said were considered when drawing congressional districts.
Policy Watch interviewed four of those people. Three said that their comments were distorted and taken out of context to support a bad map. A fourth said his comment was not about the congressional map but did not object Daniel mentioning it or to the redistricting plan.
Legislators received thousands of comments on congressional, state House, and state Senate redistricting plans.
Rep. Amos Quick (D-Guilford) said the new maps were drawn with “surgical precision” to disadvantage African American voters. SB 740 won final approval in the NC House on Thursday.
Daniel said Wednesday that all the redistricting chairmen and staff “viewed some of the comments and picked out some of the ones that jumped out at us” and which were representative of other people’s comments.
Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Burke)
Daniel shrugged when asked about people who said their comments were misused.
“I don’t know if there is something to say to that,” he said.
Daniel, a Morganton Republican and GOP map sponsor, used Holland’s comment to bolster a plan for congressional districts that includes what Daniel called a “Sandhills district.”
The Sandhills region of the state is south of Raleigh and includes counties that border South Carolina.
Holland said in an interview that what he described as a Sandhills district is not what Republicans drew. Cumberland County would be important to a Sandhills district, Holland said, but the Republican map doesn’t include it. And Holland doesn’t consider a Sandhills district to be one that extends into southeastern Mecklenburg County, like the one Republicans created.
“They took what we said and did the opposite,” said Holland, chairman of the Moore County Democratic Party.
Republicans rejected redistricting ideas from Democrats that came to public votes.
Republicans rejected maps that included Sandhills districts that Holland preferred. The Senate redistricting committee voted down a map that Democratic Sen. Ben Clark of Hoke County proposed. Republicans didn’t allow floor debate on a map offered by Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat.
Have GOP lawmakers mended their ways?
The state is required to draw new congressional and legislative district boundaries after each census to account for population shifts and growth. Districts must have populations that are about equal. They are to avoid dividing counties. Republican legislators devised redistricting criteria that allow communities with natural connections be kept together.
Repeated lawsuits and court losses have forced state lawmakers to correct unconstitutional defects.
Republicans this year have taken pains to say that they are drawing maps differently than in the past and have abandoned practices that got them in trouble with the courts.
They are also careful about what they say in public, knowing their statements will become part of lawsuits. On occasion, lawmakers read from scripts, and Republicans tended to give repetitive answers to questions.
Republicans said they created maps only on terminals in committee rooms where the public could watch, and did not use outside consultants. They have said repeatedly that they did not take into account racial or partisan data, because over the last decade courts have rejected their plans as racial or partisan gerrymanders.
Democrats, however, insisted that legislators need a study of racially polarized voting. Such a study would reveal whether legislators need to draw federal Voting Rights Act districts. VRA districts, as they’re called, are those in which Black voters would have the chance to elect candidates of their choice. Republicans said ‘no’ to the study and no to drawing the VRA districts.
A revealing federal court opinion issued in January 2018 described how Republicans two years earlier had asked the public to comment on congressional redistricting maps, only to ignore what people said.
Deposition testimony described how legislative the then-redistricting chairmen, Republicans David Lewis in the House and Bob Rucho in the Senate, met privately with Republican redistricting guru Thomas Hofeller. They told him to create maps that would elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats to the state’s congressional delegation.
Hofeller had the maps drawn before the public hearing and before the deadline for written comments, the court order said.
“Because Dr. Hofeller finished drawing the 2016 Plan before the public hearing and the opening of the window for members of the public to submit written comments,” [information taken from a Hofeller deposition] “the 2016 Plan did not reflect any public input,” the order said.
“Cherry-picking public comments”
It’s possible to read public comments and still misrepresent them.
In a Monday committee meeting, Daniel mentioned a comment from Martha Shafer while describing a new congressional district. Shafer said at a public hearing that the city of High Point should be kept whole.
Martha Shafer jumped on Twitter when she heard her public hearing comments were used to justify a redistricting map she called “horrific.”
“Cherry-picking public comments in bad faith to support gerrymandered maps further undermines democracy,” she wrote.
She said in an interview that she did talk about keeping High Point whole in a state House map – not a congressional map. Shafer ran for a state House seat in 2018 as a Democrat, but said her days as a candidate are behind her. It was running that campaign that made her interested in how High Point is treated in redistricting plans.
Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) said the final maps ignored the wishes of voters who commented on the proposed districts and amounted to a “gross gerrymander.”
But her emphasis throughout was on keeping Guilford and Forsyth counties, and the cities that form the Piedmont Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point), together in a single district. Shafer has commented on redistricting in person and in writing.
In a written comment she said, “Guilford County has a long history of being split by congressional districts. Frankly, at times it was extremely confusing for residents to know who their representative was. In addition to being confusing, it was ineffective. The last time we were split between congressional districts (13 & 6) many residents in our urban and suburban areas felt our concerns were not heard at allby either representative. No amount of phone calls, meetings or emails to our representatives produced results. They were attentive to the voices of the constituents in the rural areas, but not to us. We were frustrated because our needs were ignored.
“The current congressional map — the one in place right now — does not split Guilford County and keeps Greensboro, High Point and Winston Salem together. It’s great! Our voices are finally being heard.”
The Republican congressional map that legislators are approving this week does not preserve that situation. Guilford and Forsyth are in different districts, and Guilford is split into three pieces.
Shafer said in an interview that Daniel used a small portion of what she said to justify something she opposes.
“He did not look at the totality of my comments,” she said. Daniel “took my Forsyth County testimony and cherry-picked just a couple of words from that to make it appear that I support this map when this is exactly what I thought should not happen. It’s ironic that he would use my name to associate with a map that I think is horrific.”
Likewise, Liz Voss of Huntersville said her comments about three northern Mecklenburg towns were distorted to justify a plan meant to elect as many Republicans as possible.
In the map, northern Mecklenburg and the county’s western edge form a crescent. It’s part of a district that includes counties to the west.
“I never ever, ever, ever, ever would have told them what they pulled in,” said Voss. “This was just to say, ‘Oh, we listened.’ They didn’t listen at all.”
Frank Williams said he remembers commenting on a state House district but added that he does not mind Daniel using what he said to support a congressional district.
“I do support this map,” said Williams, who has worked as a Republican campaign consultant.
“They’ve done a pretty remarkable job of grouping communities of interest,” Williams said.
Daniel mentioned that Williams is a Brunswick County commissioner, but Williams said he is not speaking for the county.
“I give them a lot of credit,” Williams said. “It’s a difficult job. There’s already been a lawsuit filed over it. That tells you how that’s going to go.”
Courts asked to review gerrymandering
Indeed, the lawsuit civil rights groups filed last week over legislative maps says lawmakers are required to draw Voting Rights Act districts where minority voters would be able to elect candidates of their choice.
Under the legislative maps now headed for approval, it’s possible the General Assembly will have fewer people of color.
This week, Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat from Robeson County and the only Native American in the legislature, pleaded for changes to the proposed district in that area so it could continue to elect a member of the Lumbee tribe. Graham has announced that he is running for Congress.
“Let’s not undermine the opportunity to have American Indians in this body,” Graham said. “I’m really concerned about that and I hope you’re concerned about that.”
The House did not make the change.
Several newly drawn districts where Black House members live would have narrow Democratic majorities, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project — a nonpartisan group that also gave the state’s new congressional, state House, and state Senate redistricting plans “F” grades for partisan fairness.
North Carolinians tend to split their votes about evenly between Democratic and Republican candidates.
The new congressional map has 10 Republican and four Democratic seats, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project determined. The website FiveThirtyEight says the map has 10 Republican, three Democratic, and one highly competitive district. U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat and one of two Black members of Congress from North Carolina, is in the competitive district.
In a video briefing with reporters Wednesday, Duke University mathematician Jonathan Mattingly said the plans show characteristics of gerrymandering.
“We found that the map that has been proposed for the North Carolina House really dramatically under-elects Democrats,” he said. “We have a similar analysis for the Senate.”
The legislature approved all three redistricting plans Thursday. Gov. Roy Cooper does not have the power to veto them.
Here’s a look at the new maps: