Gerrymanderers: Seeing the light, or scared straight?

Gerrymanderers: Seeing the light, or scared straight?

Perhaps the Republicans who control North Carolina’s General Assembly have finally gotten the message: their decade-long efforts to rig the state’s legislative and congressional voting district boundaries in their party’s favor simply won’t fly when challenged in the courts.

Perhaps they’re starting to take seriously the views of those, including the N.C. Council of Churches, who have called for districts to be drawn via a process less susceptible to partisan abuse.

Or, perhaps with Halloween coming up this week and a big election next year, Republican legislative chiefs who’ve relied on the spooky dark arts of gerrymandering are themselves getting scared.

Whatever the reason or reasons, a state House committee on Oct. 24 took a modest but significant step. For the first time in, well, ages, legislation that would reform redistricting and remove North Carolina from the contemporary Gerrymanderers’ Hall of Shame actually was put on a meeting agenda and received public discussion.

No action was taken and the outlook going forward is murky at best. But taking it as a given that reform has to start somewhere, even with small steps, this one meeting could turn out to have been a welcome signal of progress toward fairer elections and more accountable governance.

Districts for the U.S. House, state House and state Senate have to be adjusted after each national census so that in each category they have roughly the same number of people. But legislators to whom that task is entrusted – Republicans and Democrats alike – long have taken the opportunity to shape districts so that their party has an advantage. It has fallen to judges at both the state and federal levels to rein in redistricting schemes that, for example, marginalized African-American voters or those with the “wrong” partisan allegiance.

The state’s congressional district maps have had to be redrawn because federal courts found them to be racially discriminatory. And after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene to block maps infected with extreme partisan gerrymandering, state judges applied the North Carolina constitution to rule such maps at the legislative level out of bounds. So GOP leaders now have a clear idea which way the legal wind is blowing – and it’s not in their favor.

Not only have they been forced to devise maps according to standards that ensure a greater measure of fairness to all voters, in terms of having their voices heard, but they also must reckon with the potential fallout of the upcoming 2020 elections. Democrats gained seats in 2018. If they managed to build on those gains to the point where they seized a majority in one of the legislative chambers, Republicans no longer would have absolute control of the post census redistricting slated for 2021. They may be thinking, now’s the time to move toward a less partisan redistricting process before newly ascendant Democrats have a chance to turn the tables.

Ideas in common

House Democrats, for their part, appear ready to embrace redistricting reform. Of the three bills considered by the House Redistricting Committee at its Oct. 24 meeting, two have the declared support of a majority of House members, including most of the Democratic minority (although in one case a simple majority vote wouldn’t be sufficient for passage, since a constitutional amendment would be in play).

The bills’ common denominators are encouraging: Each would take the job of redrawing election maps away from legislators themselves and give it to other entities expected to operate without partisan favoritism. Legislators still would have the final say, but no longer would they have a role that’s commonly criticized as allowing office-holders to pick their voters instead of the other way around.

In a nutshell, House Bill 69 would set up a citizens’ redistricting commission, with members chosen by legislative leaders from both parties in a way to balance partisan affiliations. The panel would hold extensive hearings and draw proposed election maps according to nonpartisan criteria enacted into law. The legislature would vote the proposed maps up or down, without the possibility of amendments unless a stalemate occurred. The bill has 66 sponsors out of 120 House members.

House Bill 140, dubbed the FAIR Act (Fairness and Integrity in Redistricting), would go the farthest toward keeping gerrymandering permanently at bay. It proposes a constitutional amendment that would delegate the nitty-gritty of redistricting to the General Assembly’s professional staff, which would be obliged to follow nonpartisan standards. Again, legislators themselves would vote proposed maps up or down. To secure legislative passage, the bill would need to gather three-fifths majorities in each chamber (it has 63 House sponsors). Constitutional changes then would have to be approved by voters in a statewide referendum.

Under House Bill 648 legislative leaders would appoint an independent redistricting commission, which then would select a so-called special master to devise options for new districts. The commission would submit its preferred maps to the legislature, which would retain the ability to make amendments. The bill has 25 sponsors.

Timely window

House Redistricting Chair David Lewis

It’s by no means clear whether any of the three bills could gain the critical mass of support needed to clear the House, let alone the Senate. In the case of H.B. 69, for example, leaders atop the House hierarchy would have to decide to let it proceed to a floor vote – unlikely unless top senators also were on board.

House Redistricting Chair David Lewis, who has felt the slings and arrows of repeated court challenges to past GOP-drawn maps, says he is open-minded about finding a better process, and his committee now has gotten that discussion formally under way. The thinking seems to be that any bill emerging from Lewis’s panel could turn out to be a hybrid, mixing and matching ideas from the three measures now under review.

The worry that presumably keeps some Republicans awake at night, or that gives them cemetery-in-the-dark goosebumps, is that Democrats might regain legislative power and then give them a strong dose of their own gerrymandering medicine.

That would not only be hypocritical of the Democrats if they stooped to that level, but it also would perpetuate a cycle of unfairness that has tainted the quality of the state’s politics by breeding voter apathy and shielding elected officials from full accountability to their constituents.

The Council of Churches has been among those pressing for redistricting reform because it could and should mean a better alignment of legislative and congressional representation with the voting public’s actual views and needs, especially the needs of ordinary citizens and the underprivileged.

It doesn’t take a doctorate in political science to see that something’s amiss when, for example — in a state where partisan leanings are closely divided — Republicans hold 10 out of 13 congressional seats. What’s amiss is that congressional districts have been drawn so as to deprive Democratic voters, packed into some districts and scattered among others, of their constitutional rights.

Because of a standoff over the state budget, the 2019 legislative session has dragged on for months longer than it should have. But if the House, before it finally adjourns, were to make real headway against extreme gerrymandering, that would be supply some consolation. Reform enacted before the next mandated round of redistricting in 2021 would be both timely and a huge advance in the quality of our state’s democracy.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.