Despite lawmakers’ latest big stall, redistricting reformers are on the offensive
“The dog ate my homework.” If you thought this old cliché of an excuse lost all currency in the world after about the fourth grade and/or when students start turning in their assignments online, think again. Unfortunately, the phrase also pretty much sums up the position of North Carolina Republican legislative leaders as they do everything they can think of to delay the process of redrawing the legislative district maps that a three-judge federal panel struck down as unconstitutional because of their “surgical precision” in discriminating against African-American voters.
That’s because the legislators’ excuse for their ongoing failure to draw lawful maps in the face of repeated findings that they have failed to do so and directives to get to work boils down to what one major North Carolina newspaper labeled yesterday as “pitiful stall tactics.” As Chris Fitzsimon observed in last week’s “Monday Numbers” column, the magnitude of the stall is pretty startling:
“56—number of days since the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed with a lower court ruling that General Assembly districts drawn in 2011 were illegally gerrymandered based on race (“U.S. Supreme Court agrees NC legislative districts were illegally gerrymandered based on race,” Progressive Pulse, June 6, 2017)
542—number of days since a federal court ruled that two of North Carolina’s congressional districts drawn in 2011 were illegally gerrymandered based on race (Federal three-judge panel throws out Congressional Districts 1 and 12 as racial gerrymanders, Progressive Pulse, February 5, 2016)
154—number of days since House Bill 200 that would establish a nonpartisan redistricting process was introduced in the North Carolina House (N.C. General Assembly, House Bill 200)
39—number of co-sponsors of House Bill 200 that would establish a nonpartisan redistricting process (Ibid)
123—number of days that the General Assembly was in session after HB200 that would establish a nonpartisan redistricting process was introduced before it adjourned (Ibid)
0—number of committee hearings held to discuss House Bill 200 (Ibid)”
A newfound interest in public hearings
The latest iteration of this big stall can be found in the lawmakers’ sudden discovery of (and newfound affinity for) public hearings and discussion in the redistricting process. Readers will recall that this didn’t use to be the case. Legislative leaders have repeatedly overhauled state election laws and electoral maps (and dozens of other laws) in past years by unveiling new proposals out of nowhere at the last minute and forcing quick votes before anyone knew what the heck was going on. Now, however, things have apparently changed.
Having maneuvered the federal courts into a situation in which a 2017 special election was ruled out as infeasible, Republican legislators are now doing everything they can to push back final resolution of the process even further if possible – something that, not coincidentally, keeps potential Democratic challengers in the dark about the districts in which they might run and, even more importantly, hindered in raising campaign funds.
And so it is that lawmakers have finally started to hold some meetings of the legislative redistricting committees of late and plan to hold some more in the coming days, starting this Thursday. Notwithstanding the fact that they could never see fit to do it during the recent, six-month legislative session and could easily redraw maps to comply with the judges’ order with a handful of computer key strokes (and that they undoubtedly have multiple maps at their ready disposal), the order of the day now is go slow, slow, slow.
Of course, if this were really about establishing a genuinely fair and open process and giving members of the public the tools they need to really participate, legislators would be doing more than just holding hearings; they would be making their new proposed maps public immediately.
As advocates at Democracy North Carolina put it recently in a post entitled “Show me the maps”:
“On July 30, a federal court ordered the N.C. General Assembly to redraw racially-gerrymandered legislative districts by at least September 1. While lawmakers argued that they needed more time, we know:
- lawmakers have already had a year to get the maps done and new maps are finished, but have not been revealed; and
- it makes sense to have public comment *after* the public sees the new maps, giving us a chance to respond to them.
We need the co-leaders of the legislature’s redistricting committee — Sen. Ralph Hise and Rep. David Lewis — to let us see the maps and analyze them before any public hearing. After all, when Rep. David Lewis led the redrawing of the 13 Congressional districts in 2016, he said, ‘I propose that we draw them to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats.’ We don’t want partisan advantage or racial bias to play a role in drawing the new maps. We want fair maps.”
Happily, despite the delays, obfuscation and temporary victories, one gets the strong sense that lawmakers are, like many procrastinating grade schoolers, fighting a losing battle. Once an obscure issue that scarcely drew even a ripple of attention from the general public, gerrymandering is now a hot issue that’s on the lips of a large and rapidly growing segment of voters. What’s more, those who know about it aren’t happy.
In January, the nonpartisan watchdogs at Common Cause NC polled North Carolina voters and found that 59 percent were in favor of nonpartisan redistricting, with just 15 percent opposed and 26 percent unsure. Support held across party lines, with 69 percent of unaffiliated voters, 59 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans in favor of reform. And, of course, this was before the disastrous publicity gerrymandering has received in the last six months.
Making the most of hearings designed to delay
In light of all this, advocates for reform are pushing hard. Again, here are the good people at Democracy NC spelling out the principles that deserve to be highlighted in a recent post in which they urge supporters to file comments on the redistricting process via a General Assembly web portal and at in-person hearings:
“What’s the Key to End Gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is the deliberate drawing of district boundaries in a way that is solely focused on preserving or gaining political power. Especially in the South, the history of gerrymandering is intimately linked to the deliberate division of voters by race, generally to undercut the political power of Black voters and their fusion coalitions with other voters.
Understanding the history of racism is crucial to end gerrymandering. In addition to deep community involvement, fair redistricting should follow these basic principles:
- Race is Key: Map drawers shall ensure that it is possible for Black voters to elect their candidates of choice. Also, dividing compact Black populations to weaken their power is prohibited. These are central requirements of the Voting Rights Act.
- Obey Laws: In addition to the federal Voting Rights Act, maps must abide by the US and NC constitutions and laws.
- “One person, one vote”: means districts must be very nearly equal in population.
- Geographic Compactness: Map drawers shall create compact districts, without odd tentacles. Compactness can be evaluated with mathematical measures.
- Contiguity: Draw districts that don’t skip over areas or join two areas at just one point on the map.
- Count Incarcerated Persons: as residents of their pre-incarceration home or family residence for purposes of redistricting.
- No Favoritism: Map drawers shall not use the addresses of current lawmakers, or the party affiliation or voting history of voters, or other data to help a party or politician.
- Respect Communities of Interest: Map drawers must avoid dividing a “community of interest,” such as people with similar cultural, ethnic and economic interests; a local government district; neighborhoods that have worked together on issues; and other relationships that can be documented to show common interests.
- Respect County Boundaries: Map drawers should make every effort to keep counties whole. If counties or towns must be split, a statement must explain why.
- Evaluate Fairness: Before it is approved, a map must be evaluated for overall racial bias and partisan competitiveness. There are a variety of tools recognized by courts to measure racial and partisan fairness.”
In other words, GOP lawmakers may be playing the delay game, but they won’t be able to hide from the truth much longer. Increasingly, citizen advocates are angry, informed and speaking out. Like the dallying third grader, legislators may soon wish they’d turned in their homework when it was due.