A proposal to reduce the influence of partisan politics in the way North Carolina’s voting maps are drawn has broad, bipartisan support in the N.C. House. Yet the bill appears in danger of being denied a vote in that chamber.
A majority of House members are co-sponsoring House Bill 92, which would take the power of drawing congressional and legislative districts out of the hands of partisan lawmakers and give it to nonpartisan legislative staff, beginning with the next round of redistricting in 2021.
But while an overwhelming number of House members have voiced their support for the measure, House Bill 92 is yet to be taken up by the House Elections Committee.
The “crossover deadline” is Thursday, and most bills – including the redistricting reform measure – must pass at least one chamber by that date in order to be eligible for consideration during the remainder of the 2015-2016 legislative session.
Several facts help make the case for taking up House Bill 92:
• Of the roughly 200 bills passed so far this year by the House, only two have more sponsors than the 63 sponsors enjoyed by House Bill 92.
• In fact, among the bills passed by the House, the average number of sponsors is just 11 – far below House Bill 92.
• Redistricting reform is widely supported by the public, with a 2013 poll conducted by the N.C. Center for Voter Education finding 70 percent of North Carolina voters in favor of implementing an independent process for drawing voting maps, including 73 percent of Republicans, 69 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of unaffiliated voters.
“Redistricting reform has strong, bipartisan support among lawmakers and the public,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of the nonpartisan Common Cause North Carolina. “We hope legislative leaders will allow House Bill 92 to have the vote it clearly deserves.”
Almost 170 municipal elected officials from across North Carolina have added their names to North Carolinians to End Gerrymandering Now, an effort spearheaded by former mayors Richard Vinroot of Charlotte and Charles Meeker of Raleigh.
In all, 168 municipal leaders representing 109 different municipalities so far have joined Vinroot and Meeker to encourage lawmakers in the General Assembly to enact a nonpartisan redistricting process.
In addition to the local officials supporting redistricting reform, 63 members of the N.C. House have sponsored House Bill 92 – a proposal that would take the power of drawing congressional and legislative voting maps out of the hands of partisan lawmakers and give it to nonpartisan legislative staff, beginning with the next round of redistricting in 2021.
“We are so pleased to see this effort we started grow to almost 170 leaders from both parties across the state,” said former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot. “This groundswell of support highlights how important this issue is to a wide range of communities and how eager our fellow municipal leaders are to see a redistricting system that is fair to voters, not just politicians.”
“This growing list of leaders represents all corners of North Carolina from our biggest cities to our smallest towns,” former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said. “I am honored to be a part of this growing movement to finally ensure that every vote is equal and every voter has a voice on Election Day.”
North Carolina’s current redistricting process ensures that whichever party is in control of the legislature can draw new districts to favor their party, which reduces competition and leads to greater political polarization. Both major parties in the state have been guilty of gerrymandering and since 1992 an average of 43 percent of legislative races have had only one candidate on the ballot.
“The municipal leaders on this list reflect the diversity of North Carolina and we’re excited to see them all united to take the politics out of redistricting,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of the nonpartisan Common Cause North Carolina. “They have a unique understanding of how gerrymandering divides communities and stifles competition at the ballot box, robbing too many voters of any real voice in our democracy.”
While House Bill 92, the redistricting reform measure, enjoys support from a majority of N.C. House members, it has yet to be heard in the General Assembly.
More than 200 years ago, at the Massachusetts convention to debate ratifying the U.S. Constitution, state representative Theophilus Parsons emphasized the need for a remedy if “a state legislature” were to “make an unequal and partial division of the state into districts for the election of representatives.” But although the Framers responded by providing for federal regulation of elections in the new Constitution, the problem of gerrymandering persists.
Courts and legislatures struggled to address gerrymandering for decades, but it was not until 2011 that one state, Arizona, successfully used a ballot initiative to create an independent commission to draw district lines for Congress. Now the Arizona state legislature is suing to invalidate the lines drawn that year, arguing that the U.S. Constitution requires that the state legislature draw those lines. On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in this lawsuit.
We in California have a strong interest in this court case. That’s because California used the ballot to go even further than Arizona and barred the legislature from directly selecting the members of the commission. We, together with three former governors of California and the Chamber of Commerce, filed an amicus brief that among other things demonstrates that the dangers inherent in this lawsuit extend well beyond Arizona and California.
A broad decision from the high court eliminating any regulation of the “manner” of federal elections not made by state legislators could not only invalidate fair redistricting in other states that use independent commissions but also threaten important existing reforms that were first accomplished by ballot measure, such as permanent voter registration and all-mail balloting.
The principal issue before the court is: What does the Elections Clause of the Constitution mean? It says, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations . . .”
The Arizona legislature argues that “Legislature” may only mean the specific group of elected members sitting in the state capitol. But the dictionary known to the Framers, by Dr. Samuel Johnson, defined legislature as “the power that makes laws.” So did Noah Webster, when he wrote his 1806 dictionary.
For the past century, some states have used the initiative and referendum as “the power that makes laws” on a broad range of subjects. In spite of the fact that state legislatures have historically misused their power to redistrict, the Arizona legislature insists that the citizens of Arizona should not be allowed to use the initiative to create a commission to draw new lines.
We will never be certain of how the Framers would have defined “Legislature,” because the initiative was unknown in 1787. But we do know their views on federalism and fair elections.
The authors of the Federalist Papers contemplated that Congress would serve as a backstop in case the state legislatures abused their power to regulate elections to cripple the nascent federal legislature. Hence that second line in the Elections Clause, giving Congress the power to pass its own laws that would override state rules. Had Congress been displeased with the use of new alternative political structures to carry out redistricting, it could have mandated that redistricting be done solely by the legislators.
But Congress never did so. In fact, a later Congress acted to further clarify the vision of the Framers by considering the changed landscape and explicitly giving the states freedom to act in accordance with their own laws. In 1911 Congress changed the relevant law, which had referred to redistricting by “the legislature of such State” to provide that the redistricting should be done by a state “in the manner provided by the laws thereof.”
This was done after a floor discussion of the then-new phenomenon of the statewide initiative, first adopted in 1898 in South Dakota, and some mention of nonpartisan commissions. It would now be up to the states to choose the means to accomplish their duties.
And yet today we have the remarkable irony of state legislators arguing that the clause intended to give Congress the power to prevent gerrymandering instead forbids a state from preventing it.
The commissions recently used in California and Arizona may have their flaws. But those could be fixed before meeting again in six years time. Already, they have proven to be far more open, transparent and responsive to diverse groups than the alternative—legislators meeting in a backroom and producing new maps. And like it or not, commissions produced many more competitive seats in 2012 and 2014 than had been seen in the past.
There should never again be a situation like that in California in the decade of the 2000s where, in a state with 53 House seats, there was a change of party exactly once in 265 House races. “We the people” deserve better.
Mr. Mundell is the former chairman of Californians for Fair Redistricting and was the executive producer of the 2010 feature documentary “Gerrymandering.” Mr. Munger is the proponent of California Proposition 20, which put the drawing of California’s 53 congressional districts into the hands of an independent commission.
A bipartisan majority of N.C. House members are sponsoring a bill to end gerrymandering in North Carolina.
In all, 63 lawmakers have lent their names to House Bill 92 – the largest number of sponsors for a redistricting reform measure ever in the state.
The proposal would take the power of drawing congressional and legislative voting maps out of the hands of partisan lawmakers and give it to nonpartisan legislative staff, beginning with the next round of redistricting in 2021.
“Redistricting reform is an idea whose time has come,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican and one of the chief authors of the bill. “This is an insurance policy to protect each party from gerrymandering.”
Under North Carolina’s longstanding system, whichever party controls the legislature also controls redistricting. For decades, the result has been voting maps that heavily favor one party or the other and reduce competition at the ballot box.
Since 1992, an average of 43 percent of legislative races have had only one candidate on the ballot. And just 8 percent of last year’s legislative races were truly competitive, being decided by 5 percentage points or less.
“Gerrymandering undermines voter confidence in our election system,” Democratic Minority Leader Larry Hall of Durham said. “I am proud to be working with this bipartisan coalition to ensure citizens have a real voice in their government.”
Sponsors of the legislation include not only longtime lawmakers like Stam — who first filed a redistricting reform bill 26 years ago — but also five freshman Republican legislators.
“At a time when there is so much polarization in politics, it’s powerful to see Republicans and Democrats from across our state working together to end gerrymandering in North Carolina,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of the nonpartisan Common Cause North Carolina. “This bill is a great step forward in protecting the right of citizens to choose their representatives.”
A 2013 poll commissioned by the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Voter Education found 70 percent of North Carolina voters in favor of creating an impartial redistricting process, including 73 percent of Republicans, 69 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of independents.
House Bill 92 (Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission) was introduced Monday night – despite cold, snow and nasty weather.
The next step is to get House members to co-sponsor (publicly put their name on) the bill.
And we need YOUR help. Please call your member in the N.C. House of Representatives TODAY and ask them to sign on to the bill. You can call 919-733-4111 and they will direct your call to the right person.
House members must sign on by 5 p.m. tomorrow, so please do it NOW.