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Redistricting gridlock leads to calls for independent process

Posted by on Oct 24, 2016

States with nonpartisan redistricting process haven’t eluded lengthy litigation

Barry Smith

September 13, 2016

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that convinced a panel of federal judges to toss out North Carolina’s legislative redistricting maps want new districts drawn during a special session in January 2017.

The plaintiffs’ proposal is just that at this point. There’s no guarantee federal courts will order the General Assembly to convene a special session for redistricting. Even so, new maps will have to be drawn next year, barring further intervention by appellate courts.

For decades, North Carolina has been at the forefront of redistricting litigation.

“It just feels like North Carolina is a battleground state when it comes to redistricting,” said Wendy Underhill, program director for redistricting and elections at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “You do have a litigious history.”

Unlike North Carolina, where the General Assembly draws legislative and congressional districts with no input from the governor, a handful of other states farm out their redistricting duties to bipartisan or nonpartisan entities.

Seven states use an alternative method for drawing congressional maps while 13 states use those methods for legislative maps, Underhill said. “Each one is different,” she said.

One state — Iowa — directs its nonpartisan legislative staff to draw maps.

Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, is a long-time advocate of redistricting reform in North Carolina. She’s encouraged the General Assembly to adopt a plan similar to Iowa’s.

“In Iowa the staff draws [the district map], a citizens’ commission gets input, and then the legislators have to vote it up or down.”

The Iowa law doesn’t allow the staff to consider the voters’ political party, incumbency, previous election results, or demographic data other than head counts — other than what is required by federal law — when establishing districts.

It also requires the congressional and legislative districts to “be of compact and contiguous territory.”

After the nonpartisan staff draws the maps, the Iowa legislature has an up-or-down vote on the maps. Only technical amendments are allowed.

If the legislature does not approve a map or the governor vetoes it, the nonpartisan staff starts over and submits a second plan. Again, the legislature gets an up-or-down vote.

If the second plan is rejected by the legislature or vetoed by the governor, the nonpartisan staff draws a third map. Unlike the previous two maps, the third map can be amended by the legislature.

Arizona has a five-member Independent Redistricting Commission. Two Republicans and two Democrats are appointed by the caucus leaders from the state’s legislature. Those members appoint a fifth member, who is not from the two major parties, said Colleen Mathis, the independent member and chairwoman of the Arizona commission.

Arizona’s commission resulted from a voter-initiated constitutional amendment that was approved in 2000.

The amendment says the commission can’t consider incumbency or pre-existing districts. Every 10 years, the commission has to start from scratch.

“It’s like an Etch-a-Sketch,” Mathis said. “It’s shaken clean. There’s no remnant of the previous map.”

Unlike Iowa, Arizona does take partisan demographics into account because competitiveness is a requirement. “It’s actually rooted in the proposition,” Mathis said. “When competitiveness is one of the criteria, you can’t just pay lip service to it.”

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t remove litigation from the process,” Mathis said, noting that a number of lawsuits still get filed.

North Carolina legislators have filed bills establishing some sort of nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commission for decades. But none have become law.

The chairman of the House Redistricting Commission, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said he doesn’t think it’s possible to come up with a nonpartisan commission.

“It is as absurd as thinking the judiciary is nonpartisan,” Lewis said. “You can’t get judges that are nonpartisan. How are you going to get some kind of independent citizen commission that cares nothing about politics and get them to draw the districts?”

In what he called a “blunt” assessment, Lewis said, “Those that advocate for a nonpartisan redistricting are doing it because they think it will be to their partisan advantage to do so.”

Pinsky agrees that there is no perfect redistricting system. “We’re getting to the point where we have the perfect imperfect system,” she said.

Common Cause sues over NC congressional districts

Posted by on Oct 24, 2016


While redrawing congressional districts this past winter, Republican state lawmakers emphasized that the new lines were meant to keep Republicans in control of 10 seats in North Carolina’s delegation, leaving three seats for Democrats.

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and House redistricting leader, said at a meeting that he wanted the maps drawn “to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

That explicit partisan intent is the target of a lawsuit filed Friday seeking to overturn the districts.

The legislature redrew the 13 congressional districts this year to satisfy a court order after a three-judge panel determined that two of the state’s districts were racial gerrymanders that unlawfully diluted black votes.

The latest legal challenge comes from Common Cause, a critic of Democrats when they used control of the legislature to draw districts for partisan advantage, and of Republicans who did the same after they took control in 2011. Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the state Democratic Party; current and former legislators including House Minority Leader Larry Hall, a Durham Democrat; and Democratic voters.

The defendants are Lewis and Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, legislative leaders, the State Board of Elections and Gov. Pat McCrory.

The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed redistricting plans to go forward in the past despite claims of partisan motivation. But Common Cause hopes the court is now ready to decide that partisan gerrymandering, as well as racial gerrymandering, violates the Constitution.

Bob Phillips, executive director of the North Carolina chapter of Common Cause, said there are suggestions that the “time is ripe” to file the lawsuit.

Opinions by U.S. Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy in particular, have suggested that they believe partisan gerrymandering is a problem, Phillips said.

“Partisanship might be the next frontier for redistricting cases,” said Wendy Underhill, director of the Elections and Redistricting Program for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A statement from Lewis and Rucho, the redistricting chairmen for their chambers, said the lawsuit is a partisan attack.

“It’s ironic that a lawsuit filed by partisan Democrats for no other reason than to advance their own partisan interests would attack a map already affirmed by a federal three-judge panel that splits fewer counties and fewer precincts than any Congressional map adopted in the modern era in North Carolina,” the statement said. “This is just the latest in a long line of attempts by far-left groups to use the federal court system to take away the rights of North Carolina voters.”

The state has a long history of court decisions based on lawsuits focused on the racial makeup of voting districts. But a federal court dismissed a 1992 lawsuit filed by Republicans against Democrats that claimed partisan gerrymandering.

Common Cause said in a statement Friday that its lawsuit could be a landmark and lead the Supreme Court to decide whether partisan gerrymandering is constitutional.

“Perhaps for the first time ever in North Carolina, state legislators have freely and publicly admitted that they gerrymandered for rank partisan advantage,” Phillips said in a statement.

“That open admission was done because the courts have placed limits on racial gerrymandering, but have left unanswered the question of whether partisan gerrymandering is allowable. We believe our case can finally make clear that gerrymandering of any kind violates the constitutional rights of North Carolina voters.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro.

Christine Bowser of Mecklenburg County and David Harris of Durham, two North Carolinians who were part of the initial challenge of the 2011 congressional district maps that led to the redrawing this year, also filed a request this week for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the question of partisan gerrymanders. Their initial appeal of the districts was successful on the grounds of racial gerrymandering, but they have been unsuccessful in appealing the redrawn maps, which they say used a “brazen approach” to redistricting.

That request could put the question of partisan gerrymandering before the U.S. justices before the Common Cause case is heard.

The Common Cause lawsuit claims that the districts violate the First Amendment by favoring some voters and burdening others. The suit claims the district plan violates the Fourteenth Amendment because it deprives Democratic voters and the state Democratic Party of equal protection under laws.

Before federal judges approved redrawn districts for use in this year’s elections, Bowser and Harris had asked the judges to reject the plan as a “blatant, unapologetic partisan gerrymander.”

The three-judge panel rejected that challenge but invited a new lawsuit.

Common Cause NC has been pushing for years for a law to take the job of drawing districts away from legislators, but has been unable to get a bill passed in both chambers.

Ted Arrington, a retired political scientist at UNC Charlotte and national expert on redistricting, said the case could break new ground. He pointed to North Carolina’s long history of redistricting litigation.

“North Carolina is famous for giving us landmark cases in legislative redistricting,” he said Friday. “It’s a good place to make a case.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

Coalition responds to US Supreme Court’s denial of stay in NC congressional redistricting case

Posted by on Feb 20, 2016

The US Supreme Court on Friday refused to issue a stay in a lower court ruling that directed North Carolina lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional districts due to racial gerrymandering.

The following is a statement from Jane Pinsky, director of the nonpartisan NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, in response to the Supreme Court allowing the lower court ruling to remain.

“For many years, Democrats drew congressional boundaries in North Carolina that produced chaotic court fights. Now, it’s Republican versions that cannot survive court reviews.

“We are saddened by this process, which puts raw politics over the people. We promise to redouble our efforts to bring about methods for deciding political boundaries that are fair, impartial and can restore confidence in our state’s elections.

“We ask lawmakers of both parties to join us in developing a bipartisan solution.”

Our View: Redistricting Suit Reminds Us of A Better Way

Posted by on Sep 3, 2015

Fayetteville Observer

Posted: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 11:30 pm | Updated: 11:43 pm, Wed Sep 2, 2015.

It’s been more than four years and two state elections since the latest North Carolina voting districts were created.
But they are still under a cloud of legal challenges that have already found their way to the U.S. Supreme Court once and probably will land there again.

The question is not whether the Republican majority in the General Assembly gerrymandered the districts to gain political advantage. Of course they did, and that’s legal and constitutional. What’s at issue here is whether legislative mapmakers went beyond politics and used race to design districts that also give them an advantage – which is neither legal nor constitutional.

The N.C. Supreme Court ruled last year that the redistricting was legal in all ways and that the new districts could stand. But the decision – in which former state Sen. Margaret Dickson of Fayetteville is the lead plaintiff – was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In April, that court tossed the case back to the N.C. Supreme Court, saying it must reconsider whether lawmakers relied too heavily on race.

The redistricting did create some bizarre-shaped districts, especially those created to insure success for African-American candidates. But it’s still uncertain if those districts were created by a legally unacceptable process.
The state Supreme Court held its second review of the case on Monday, and justices seemed perplexed by what they saw as sharply differing precedents in federal court decisions, seeking explanations from lawyers for both sides.

No matter how the state justices rule, another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is seen as inevitable by both sides. The N.C. justices didn’t say Monday how quickly they would rule. We hope a decision will come before campaigning begins in earnest for 2016 state and federal elections.

We’d also like to see this as a final chapter in a saga that plays out almost like clockwork after every decade’s exercise in redistricting. It’s a frustrating, time-and-money-wasting ritual that undermines voters’ confidence in their electoral system. At various times in the past, both Democrats and Republicans have united around plans to create a nonpartisan legislative redistricting commission. Such a measure has bipartisan support in the N.C. House today, but not in the Senate.

It’s time to stop this endless cycle of protests, lawsuits, special legislative sessions and delayed elections. Let’s turn redistricting over to an impartial panel and make the voter, not political power, the most important principle.