Reform should accompany new districts
Published September 12, 2019
By John Hood
I remember when the inherent boredom of redistricting was a laugh line.
During a Season Four episode of the animated series “The Simpsons,” for example, Homer turns on the TV one Sunday morning in search of entertainment. Instead, he finds “Municipal Roundtable,” a public-affairs show. “Let’s define our terms, gentlemen,” says the monotone-voiced moderator to a panel of experts. “Are we talking about redistricting or are we talking about reapportionment? “Oh, well,” groans Homer. “Can’t win ’em all.” Then an announcer breaks in: “We interrupt this public affairs program to bring you … a football game.”
Homer dances with joy.
Whatever else we might say about redistricting in North Carolina, it’s clearly the opposite of boring. Several weeks ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to strike down North Carolina’s congressional districts as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders, Republicans celebrated and Democrats fumed. Then, a few day ago, the emotional roles were reversed when a three-judge panel of state judges concluded that much of North Carolina’s legislative-district maps constituted an “extreme partisan gerrymander” in violation of the state constitution. It ordered the General Assembly to redraw them immediately.
Legislative leaders have chosen not to appeal the trial-court decision. They’ll redraw under a court order that mandates openness, fresh and compact districts, and no use of party registration or election results. Democrats are understandably delighted with the outcome. But neither they nor their Republican counterparts should conclude that North Carolina’s perpetual and costly problems with redistricting are over.
In the state court case, Common Cause v. Lewis, the three-judge panel ordered a remedy to a specific set of districts drawn in 2017. It did not and could not make a permanent change in the way North Carolina adopts its electoral maps. It didn’t set binding precedent. Moreover, the decision didn’t describe a clear standard for distinguishing “extreme” partisan gerrymandering, which the judges deemed to run afoul of the state constitution, from run-of-the-mill favoritism for incumbents or parties, which apparently does not.
Although the court-ordered remedy may well make legislative districts more competitive in 2020, we won’t really know until after the election. Staring into the rear-view mirror is no way to drive a car forward. Policymakers must know the rules of the road ahead of time. They need clear standards for redistricting written directly into North Carolina’s constitution, standards that elevate the interests of voters above those of incumbents or parties.
That’s why the new districts required by the trial court should be accompanied by enactment of House Bill 140, known as the Fair Act (for Fairness And Integrity in Redistricting). Its provisions are entirely consistent with the ruling but go further to ensure that future districts are compact, respectful of local boundaries, and produced in the light of day.
HB 140 authorizes a statewide referendum to place redistricting criteria into the state constitution. Its accompanying statute has the nonpartisan legislative staff rather than lawmakers draw the maps. It entrusts the authority to answer questions from staffers drawing maps, and to hold public hearings on them, to a balanced advisory commission made up of two Democratic appointees, two Republican appointees, and a fifth member chosen by a majority of the other four.
When it comes to redistricting, each party has historical reasons to be skeptical of the other’s intentions. Now is the moment to come together for the good of North Carolina. Neither side can know who will control the legislature after the 2020 elections. What if you end up in the minority? Shouldn’t you take out an insurance policy against the catastrophic loss of adverse redistricting in 2021?
Lawsuits can produce specific remedies to specific harms. They are no substitute for reform enacted with bipartisan supermajorities in the General Assembly and approved by North Carolina voters in a referendum. Let’s end the costly cycle of litigation, oscillation, and recrimination. Let’s embrace the opportunity to reform our redistricting process, and to set a new and better example for how to resolve public disputes. Let’s lead.