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Posted by on Jan 20, 2015


From the Raleigh News and Observer

January 7, 2015


The lopsided 2014 election results leave little reason to expect Republicans and Democrats to work together in the upcoming General Assembly session.

Republicans are riding high after retaining veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers. Democrats believe that the GOP’s super-majority control is undeserved and that gerrymandered elections unfairly pushed them to the sidelines.

Ironically, agreement may be attainable on the very issue that has most divided the parties – redistricting. That is, if they can take a cue from what Republicans and Democrats recently achieved in Ohio.

It was considered a minor miracle last month when both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly reached broad bi-partisan consensus on reforming how election districts will be redrawn after the 2020 census. Ohio legislators overwhelmingly agreed for voters to decide this November on adding redistricting reform to the state constitution.

That’s precisely the outcome redistricting reform advocates in North Carolina hope to achieve. There was brief headway in 2011 when the state House passed legislation for “nonpartisan redistricting.” But it stalled in the state Senate and hasn’t moved since.

For now, the parties remain locked in a legal standoff. In mid-2013, a three-judge panel unanimously upheld the Republican-drawn maps, and late last month the N.C. Supreme Court concurred in a 4-2 ruling. Voter-rights litigants allied with Democrats vow to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In December 2013, Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican and longtime redistricting reform advocate, told an audience of reform supporters that his party would be more receptive if appeals were out of the way. He said for Republicans to embrace reform while facing a legal challenge might be seen as admitting their maps were not legitimate.

“North Carolinians to End Gerrymandering Now” is a bipartisan coalition of 90 mayors, progressive and conservative organizations, and other political and business leaders. The coalition is lobbying for action this year to put a state constitutional amendment to overhaul redistricting before the voters in 2016.

To date, Republicans have been reluctant to bring up the issue. And back-to-back court victories would seem to give them more incentive to keep the proposal on ice. But similarities in North Carolina and Ohio make prospects for breaking the stalemate seem not quite so improbable.

Like North Carolina, Ohio Republicans have super-majority control of their legislature. Some GOP leaders expressed embarrassment that gerrymandering padded their margins. Also in Ohio, the state Supreme Court upheld the Republican redistricting plan. The one difference between the two states is that Ohio Democrats did not appeal to federal court.

A compromise here, whereby Democrats drop their lawsuit in exchange for a commitment to meaningful reform from Republicans, would be good for both sides. The GOP reaped an unexpected windfall this decade, but the tables could turn against them when districts are redrawn post-2020. Republicans have always favored reform and probably prefer to get on with it.

The challengers might have grounds for linking their case to other “racial bias” cases that the Supreme Court has heard or may take up. Democrats could eventually be vindicated in their claim that Republicans unconstitutionally weakened the African-American vote by “packing” too many black voters into too few districts.

But beyond vindication, what more do they gain? It’s been a lengthy process already and could require months, possibly years, before a final ruling. Even if the Supreme Court eventually ordered new districts, Republicans would still be in charge of the redrawing. They could tweak the lines to comply with the ruling, with little or no gain for Democrats.

When the court ordered Democrats to redraw districts after Republicans prevailed in litigation last decade, they were able to redraw maps from which they actually gained ground on Republicans in the next three elections. The same could happen to Democrats if Republicans redraw the lines.

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats in Ohio have broken the partisan impasse and are joining hands to secure their voters’ approval of an historic redistricting compromise. North Carolinians should settle for nothing less.

Lee Mortimer of Durham, an election reform advocate, served on a General Assembly Election

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