Litigation and uncertainty about which political party will have the most power in the future may finally propel North Carolina lawmakers to pass redistricting reform.
A bipartisan group of legislators gathered Wednesday morning to announce House Bill 69, which would create an independent redistricting commission to draw election maps with transparency and public input. It would bring an end to partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina.
“At this point in time, you have neighborhoods being separated, homeowner’s associations being separated, students at the same university voting in separate districts – that can’t happen,” said Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Chatham, Durham). “That’s the type of thing that makes people feel government’s broken. We’ve got a chance with this step, with this bill, to move that narrative forward, to change people’s opinions.”
He and Representatives Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) and Brian Turner (D-Buncombe) are the primary sponsors of the measure, and several other. It’s expected to be one of several bills introduced this session that will address redistricting.
“We’re trying to create a series of different options for the legislature to look it,” McGrady said. “If we don’t want a commission bill, perhaps we could go down another road.”
One of those roads could be a constitutional amendment to make independent redistricting a permanent part of the state’s political landscape.
McGrady said the time for change is now — Republicans and Democrats would rather be part of the redistricting process rather than let one party or the other be in power for the foreseeable future. He added that he would be remiss not to mention the legal context for change: there is one North Carolina partisan redistricting case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court and another that looks like it could eventually get to the state Supreme Court.
“I think legislators don’t like the prospect that we may have the judiciary doing our redistricting for us,” McGrady said.
He would not discuss the details of conversations he’d had with legislative GOP leadership, who have not prioritized this issue since being in the majority. He did say, though, that he’s shared several draft bills with them that get to the same end goal.
“Having carried this bill in the past, in the recent past, it didn’t get much of a say, it didn’t get much of a say, didn’t get much of a conversation with leadership,” he said. “My leaders are telling me [now] they want to see what we’re going to put forward. … Again, I just sense a different feel with leadership.”
HB 69 creates an 11-person commission — four members from the majority political party, four members from the minority party and three members who aren’t affiliated with either of the two main parties. The Office of the State Auditor would randomly select committee members from a list of nominees chosen by lawmakers.
No member or a relative of the member can have been appointed or elected to public office or to a state board or commission within five years of serving on the commission. Members are also disqualified if they or a relative worked for a political party or campaign or worked as a lobbyist within five years of service.
Members also cannot be part of the General Assembly or Congress and they can’t have a financial relationship with the Governor. Members also are not eligible to be appointed to a state board or commission, work for a political party or campaign or work as a lobbyist during their time on the commission.
Members of the independent redistricting committee are charged with drawing maps with contiguous lines and compact areas. They would be prohibited from using the political affiliations of voters, previous election results, demographic information and the locations of incumbents’ addresses. They are requested to serve four-year terms.
“We want change,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. “There is no one perfect change, we just know that we need something better than we have now.”
Pinsky said people in North Carolina have been trying to change the redistricting process for 50 years.
Common Cause NC Executive Director Bob Phillips said it’s been eight years since a redistricting reform bill was heard in a legislative committee.
“Let the debate begin,” he said. “Having legislators discuss this, having public input, that’s what democracy is supposed to be about.”
He added that House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger sponsored a similar redistricting reform bill years ago when they were in the minority.
“The leadership today thought this was a good idea 10 years ago,” Phillips said. “Yes, the were not in power, but as been said here, it was a good idea then and it’s a good idea now. And I would ask the leadership, come back to the cause, pun intended.”