Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Aug 31, 2017

Can Republican-Sponsored Redistricting Reform Save North Carolina’s Democracy ?

March 15, 2017 News » North Carolina

By Samuel Feldblum

It’s hardly news that North Carolina’s legislative and congressional districts are horribly twisted.

Last year, two separate panels of federal judges ruled that the districts—drawn by Republicans after they claimed power in 2010—were in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, as they unconstitutionally packed minority voters to dilute the power of their vote. In February 2016, a federal court ordered the legislature to redraw congressional districts; new primaries took place in June. Then, in November, a federal court told the General Assembly to take another crack at its legislative districts, too.

The deadline was March 15, and new elections were scheduled for this November. But the Supreme Court intervened, putting the special elections on hold while considering the state’s appeal. For the time being, gerrymandering reform—at least, the court-mandated variety—has stalled.

But its proponents still see reason for hope. Late last month, four Republican state representatives introduced a bill that goes further than just drawing new maps—a temporary fix subject to the whims of whoever is in power after the 2020 census. Instead, House Bill 200 would establish an independent redistricting commission, appointed by members of both parties, that would take redistricting mostly out of the lawmakers’ hands.

While proposed by Republicans, the idea has support across the ideological spectrum, from the libertarian John Locke Foundation to the progressive Democracy NC. For an electorate shackled into safe districts guaranteeing Republican majorities—just as they once ensured a Democratic advantage—HB 200 aims to revive the state’s moribund democracy.

But will it? And, with the Republicans who benefit from the current scheme dominating the General Assembly, does it stand any chance of passing?

“The leadership really does not want the bill to move,” says Representative Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, a bill sponsor. “I think it’ll only occur when Republicans aren’t sure that they’re going to be in charge and Democrats aren’t sure that they’re going to be in charge.”

Not surprisingly, then, the bill has yet to receive a committee hearing. McGrady thinks he’ll have better luck next year, when members are facing reelection.

“We need a way to keep people interested and mobilized in the issue, and we filed the bill to allow that,” he says.

To pressure Republican leaders, the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform hosted a Citizens Lobby Day on March 1. The coalition expected maybe 150 people to show up, according to director Jane Pinsky. Six hundred did. Despite the turnout, House leaders declined to meet with the visitors.

“I feel like our politicians are not accountable to the citizens of our state, only the special interests that got them elected,” said Amy Johnson, who came to the lobby day from North Raleigh. “It’s like the politicians are choosing the voters, instead of the voters choosing the politicians.”

Tyler Daye, a student at UNC-Greensboro, grew up in the old House District 12, which snakes tightly along I-85, corralling as many African Americans as possible. “It’s a famous district—it’s taught in schools as an example of gerrymandering! The [legislature] at the state level and at the federal level does not represent the people,” Daye told the INDY. Indeed, in last year’s election, Republicans won 53 percent of the total vote for U.S. representatives but secured ten of thirteen seats.

“I don’t think we have a true democracy, because the foundation of a democracy is free and fair elections.”
click to tweet
The same pattern holds true in the state legislature. In November, Republicans won 52 percent of the cumulative vote for state representatives but won a veto-proof supermajority of 74 out of 120 seats. Fifty-seven representatives ran unopposed. In the state senate, 56 percent of the vote granted Republicans thirty-five of fifty seats. To Daye, “something is fundamentally wrong with that.”

While they benefit from the current map, the Republicans who sponsored HB 200 remember injustices suffered under Democratic leadership.

“When we were in the minority, this bill was something that Republicans generally rallied around, and what I’d say to that is, if it was the right thing then, it is still the right thing now,” McGrady said during the lobby day. “We have to serve the people of North Carolina, and we have to make sure they have full confidence in the integrity and fairness of our elections.”

“Even though we like many of their policies,” added Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, “we don’t like this idea of having elected officials choose their voters.”

Other states, including Arizona, Florida, and California, have been able to reform redistricting through referenda or ballot initiatives. Each has done so slightly differently. Six states currently use independent commissions. HB 200 seeks to emulate Iowa’s model, which is unique in that it calls for five nonpartisan legislative staff members to develop maps without access to political or election data, with the legislature then voting the maps up or down.

Since North Carolina does not offer ballot initiatives or voter referenda, the only real option for reform is for voters to put heat on legislators.

“In the long run,” Pinsky says, “this kind of thing really depends on numbers. The more people speak out, the more folks realize that blocking reform is not a popular position; they say, ‘I want to get reelected, we have to take this up.'”

But even supposedly independent processes can’t guarantee fair elections. That became clear the day after the lobbying event, when Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy hosted a conference on redistricting reform, connecting lawyers, academics, and activists. Ellen Friedin of Fair Districts Florida explained how, after Floridians voted for constitutional amendments stipulating that maps be drawn to avoid partisan advantage, lawmakers were nonetheless able to weasel partisan interests into the process by planting confederates masquerading as citizens; years of court battles finally exposed the trickery.

And it doesn’t take any nefarious meddling to skew the results, either. Nick Stephanopoulos, an assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago, presented research showing that even supposedly impartial solutions can be biased. Court-drawn maps have tended to favor Democrats, he said; independent commissions have favored Republicans, though the latter may be due to the geographic distribution of voters. (Democrats tend to cluster in urban areas.)

But proponents argue that the independent commission would be hard-pressed to do a worse job than the legislature has. Emmet Bondurant, who is suing the state over gerrymandering, told the conference that “North Carolina has taken partisanship to a new low. You have racial gerrymanders at the congressional and state legislative levels. You have racial gerrymanders going down to county school board and county commissioner levels.”

“For democracy, it’s fundamentally no different from breaking into the voting machines and flipping half the Democratic votes,” added Josh Brannon, who unsuccessfully challenged Virginia Foxx in the Fifth Congressional District.

For now, the status quo prevails. And for Daye, the UNC-Greensboro student at the Citizens Lobby Day, that means “I don’t think we have a true democracy, because the foundation of a democracy is free and fair elections. And if we don’t have fair elections, our democracy falls apart.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Map Quest.”

Read More

Posted by on Aug 31, 2017

NC Partisan Gerrymandering Lawsuit Moves Ahead

Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years. Nicole L. Cvetnic and Patrick Gleason McClatchy

‘What’s the disincentive?’ to gerrymander over and over, asks judge in NC case

AUGUST 29, 2017 7:07 PM

While the North Carolina General Assembly considered new maps for electing its members in 2018, a panel of federal judges were in a courtroom less than half a mile away weighing the next steps for two of at least five lawsuits that have challenged redistricting plans from the past decade.

Three judges rejected a request to delay trials in two lawsuits filed last year by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters accusing lawmakers of using blatant partisan gerrymandering in 2016 to draw the districts that elect members of Congress. Those maps were drawn to correct unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

Attorneys for the lawmakers argued that the judges should wait until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a case from Wisconsin which also will test the extent to which legislators across the country can draw election lines to benefit the party in power at the time. Philip Strach, a Raleigh attorney representing the Republican-led General Assembly, said a ruling in the Wisconsin case could have an impact on the North Carolina case.

U.S. District Judges W. Earl Britt, a Jimmy Carter appointee, and William L. Osteen Jr., a George W. Bush appointee, and 4th U.S. Circuit Appeals Court Judge James A. Wynn, a Barack Obama appointee, asked many questions of both sides throughout the hearing.

In North Carolina, which has been described by New York University’s Brennan Center as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, it can be dizzying to keep up with all the redistricting challenges in federal and state courts.

Lawmakers have spent much of the past two weeks considering maps they must put forward to comply with a federal court order after a panel of judges ruled that 28 of the state’s districts used to elect General Assembly members since 2011 are unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The judges in that case set Sept. 1 as a deadline for submitting maps that correct the problems.

Republican NC Senate leader has some advice for Democrats who oppose redistricting maps
Republican NC Senate leader has some advice for Democrats who oppose redistricting maps
Though Wynn is one of the judges on that case, on Tuesday he was presiding in the congressional district case with Britt, who also was in Raleigh, and Osteen, who participated by speaker phone.

Wynn spoke about the challenges of redistricting cases, echoing the frustrations that many voting rights organizations have expressed about gerrymandering used by both parties and its threat to democracy. Advocates for nonpartisan redistricting have said the technology used by modern mapmakers makes it too easy for lawmakers to select their voters, instead of letting voters select their representatives.

“What is the disincentive for an entity to do this, to intentionally do something?” Wynn said, noting the case is just the latest in a series of court challenges resulting from maps first drawn in 2011.

Though the judges have not heard evidence in the case yet and have not offered their opinions, Wynn pointed out if the challengers prevailed North Carolina voters would have selected lawmakers through much of the past decade using maps including unconstitutional districts.

After the next census is completed in three years, lawmakers again will have to tweak lines to reflect population shifts.

“Basically, you spent the whole 10 years in an institution that could be held to be unconstitutional,” Wynn said. “What is the disincentive to file another map that basically will be unconstitutional, then move on to 2030.”

Wynn posed the questions while Strach was arguing to delay the case and attorneys Edwin Speas, Anita Earls and Emmet Bondurant opposed waiting any longer for a trial that had been scheduled to begin in June. The trial was delayed that month, Britt told the court, because he was hospitalized for health issues that he is now recovering from.

“It’s not your fault,” Wynn told Strach.

The courts, Wynn added, had not developed a strategy for hearing redistricting cases quickly and determining how far lawmakers could go when designing districts to benefit their party.

Attorneys for the challengers argue that when the General Assembly adopted new congressional lines in 2016 to comply with a court order, they violated voters’ free speech and equal protection rights. Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, said at the time that lawmakers had not considered race at all when designing the lines. Instead, he said, the maps were drawn to ensure that Republicans would be elected to 10 of the 13 congressional seats in a state that is more evenly politically divided.

“We are pleased the court confirmed that our lawsuit against partisan gerrymandering will proceed,” Common Cause director Bob Phillips said after the hearing on Tuesday. “This is a potentially landmark case that could finally end gerrymandering in North Carolina and may have reverberations across the country. The lawsuit is a crucial step toward protecting the constitutional right of citizens to have a voice in choosing their representatives.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

Judge James A. Wynn Jr., a Barack Obama appointee to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, raised questions at a hearing in Raleigh on Aug. 29, 2017, about gerrymandering and whether there were any disincentives for lawmakers.

Read more here:

Read More

Posted by on Jun 21, 2017

Sometimes North Carolina’s redistricting system seems like ……….. But you can do something to change it- Sign our petition TODAY!

Read More

Posted by on Feb 9, 2017

‘Gerrymandering removes pesky choices from your ballot!’

This ad is ridiculous … but so is gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the longtime practice of partisan politicians drawing our state’s voting maps to unfairly favor their own party. In turn, opposing candidates have little or no chance of winning in these manipulated districts, and often don’t bother to run at all, leaving voters with no choice and no voice in who represents them.

Fortunately, a growing number of citizens and political leaders across the political spectrum agree that we need independent redistricting reform.

TAKE ACTION! Sign the petition to end gerrymandering now.

Read More

Posted by on Feb 8, 2016

In wake of gerrymandering ruling, give reform a chance

A federal court last week invalidated two congressional districts in North Carolina due to racial gerrymandering. The decision is the latest example spotlighting the absurdity of our state’s redistricting process.

It’s a broken system where elections are held within districts drawn by partisan politicians who game the lines for their own party. And yes, both sides are guilty. Democrats indulged in gerrymandering when they were in charge. Republicans did the same after taking power in 2010. And the majority party will get to do it again if and when this latest court ruling actually forces lawmakers to redraw the congressional districts.

The newest court decision doesn’t impact the redistricting process. That remains unchanged and fundamentally flawed. As the sound bite goes, it’s a situation where politicians choose their voters, rather than the other way around.

So as redistricting is for the moment front and center, those of us pushing for a common-sense change make this respectful request to our legislators: give reform a chance.

Sure, we know human nature dictates most of us act within our own self-interest. And the party in power doesn’t want to do anything that they believe jeopardizes that power.

That’s understandable, and it’s why prior to 2010, only one elected Democrat dared put their name to a redistricting reform bill when their party controlled the state legislature. And it’s why during that same period, every Republican elected official championed reform when they were in the minority and felt gerrymandering’s sting.

Today the political landscape has flipped, and Democrats are all in for redistricting reform. Republicans, not so much.

But to their credit, not every Republican has abandoned the cause of reform. There are significant numbers within the GOP who still believe taking politics out of the map-drawing process is the right thing to do. Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County said it best last year, when he and a bipartisan majority of NC House members introduced a bill to establish independent redistricting.

“What I would say to my fellow Republicans is this was right when we were not in the majority, and it’s still right,” McGrady said.

The effects of partisan gerrymandering will be seen clearly on the ballots of millions of North Carolina voters this fall when they will have just one choice in who represents them in the legislature – which is really no choice at all.

In fact, over 30 percent of our state legislative races were effectively determined before a single ballot was cast this year, because just one candidate even bothered to run in these districts. And the reality in November is that 90 percent of state legislative races will be decided by 10 percentage points or more, for all practical purposes making them noncompetitive elections.

As for our 13 congressional districts, in 2014 the most competitive race was decided by a whopping 15 points, and other elections were decided by margins exceeding 50 points. Nothing suggests anything different for 2016.

So what can impartial redistricting reform accomplish?

It can at least remove the practice of lawmakers in power gaming the entire process for themselves and their party. Districts could then be created that are more compact without dividing precincts and communities of interest and in some instances, yes, result in more competitive elections than we currently have.

But perhaps the greatest benefit may simply be that we would have a process that’s fair and in the interest of the public and not politicians – a process that the people can trust.

So to the current legislative leadership, we ask that you take the long view of redistricting. Each of you has once upon a time sponsored redistricting reform. You knew what it felt like to be gerrymandered out of power.

Redistricting reform guarantees that no party is gerrymandered into irrelevance again. Reform would be a win for both political parties and the voters.

Read More