Now is no time to settle for inadequate half measures on gerrymandering

Now is no time to settle for inadequate half measures on gerrymandering

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing
Protesters attend a rally for “Fair Maps” on March 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

If there is a single brightest and most hopeful bit of news on the North Carolina public policy horizon these days, it has to be that our state could, at very long last, be on the verge of ending partisan gerrymandering.

With a three-judge panel set to rule in the Common Cause v. Lewis litigation any day (a case in which much of the key evidence offered by legislative defendants was thrown out for being not credible), good government advocates are having to work hard to avoid a sense of giddy optimism about where the case is headed.

And while an appeal to the state Supreme Court seems certain, whatever the outcome of the case, it’s difficult to conceive of a scenario in which that panel would follow the criminally negligent lead of the U.S. Supreme Court and find the scourge of partisan election-rigging as beyond the reach of the judicial branch.

As promising as all of this news is, however, the battle remains far from won and Republican gerrymandering defenders still have some cards to play.

Consider, for instance, the matter of gerrymandering “reform” legislation. Though GOP legislative leaders have quashed all efforts to advance meaningful reform bills for years, it is still fully within their power to rush such legislation through this summer – perhaps immediately after an unfavorable ruling in the Common Cause case – that would seem superficially appealing, but in fact, be woefully inadequate.

One proposal that meets this description is House Bill 140 – the so-called “Fairness and Integrity in Redistricting Act or “FAIR Act.” The bill, which was reportedly developed with the very close involvement of longtime right-wing financier and activist Art Pope, was introduced six months ago by a bipartisan group of state representatives (though some members have since removed their names from sponsorship).

Here are just some of the major concerns:

  • The bill proposes a significant amendment to the state constitution. While a change to the constitution might make sense at some point, under no circumstances should North Carolina follow last year’s disastrous path of ramming through such an amendment at the end of a long legislative session. The state can adopt a fair and transparent redistricting process right away merely by passing a statutory change.
  • The proposal says that the General Assembly “may” authorize a redistricting commission to draw congressional and legislative maps, but it can already do this now. This requirement should be mandatory and its inclusion in this bill is meaningless and deceptive.
  • Assuming the General Assembly does not hand the process off to an independent commission (something that would appear to be a safe assumption), House Bill 140 vests the power for drawing maps with unelected legislative staff who will report to the state Legislative Services Office. That office is headed by longtime Pope ally and fierce, far-right partisan, former Raleigh mayor Paul Coble.
  • There is no transparency in the map drawing process. Legislative staff would draw new maps behind closed doors and present them to the General Assembly, which would then have to vote them up or down.
  • Although the bill calls for the appointment of a “Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission,” the commission has a limited list of mostly ministerial duties. What’s more, there is no procedure laid out for how the members of the group will be named.
  • The bill only requires three public hearings after the maps are drawn and before they go to the General Assembly. No public involvement of any kind is required before the maps are drawn.
  • Rather remarkably, and in an apparent conflict with public records laws, the temporary commission gets to decide which of the materials used to draw the maps, and which of the materials submitted to it, shall be made public.
  • The bill spells out a perplexing process in which the secretly-crafted bill is to be voted on within three days of being delivered by the temporary commission to the General Assembly, even though the commission is not required to report on the substance of the public hearings that take place until 14 days after the bill is delivered to lawmakers.

Lastly and most absurdly, the bill leaves the final decision in the hands of the legislature, just like current law. While the bill provides for staff to take a second stab at producing a map (or maps) if the General Assembly rejects its initial effort(s), it’s silent on what happens after a second ‘no’ vote. Apparently, if the legislative majority does not like the maps produced by staff, it can simply vote them down and draw replacements itself.

The bottom line: There is no doubt that some of the people behind this proposal are sincere in their search for common ground on a vexing topic. Indeed there are elements of the proposal that echo an older Iowa redistricting law that has accomplished many good things.

Ultimately, however, in 2019, with the momentum for a complete and lasting overhaul of redistricting so strong, North Carolina can and must do more than to settle for inadequate half measures.