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Members of the public express concerns about new redistricting criteria at legislative hearing

Several members of the public expressed strong concerns Tuesday morning at a joint meeting of the state House and Senate redistricting committees about what they said were major shortcomings in new proposed redistricting criteria released by Republican legislators on Monday. Speakers also criticized the criteria as problematically vague and decried the short notice provided for public input.

Jenny Kotora-Lynch, a Durham resident, asks the legislature to allow more public input in the redistricting process.

Durham resident Jenny Kotora-Lynch, said the public wasn’t given sufficient notice to read the criteria and sign up to speak. As Policy Watch previously reported, members of the committees convened last Thursday for the first time this session and are expected to vote on the final criteria this Thursday. Kotora-Lynch suggested legislators instead hold and livestream regional meetings to allow members of the public to attend and participate.

The district lines to be redrawn could have an impact on how people vote and choose their representatives for up to a decade. States typically redraw their congressional and legislative districts following the release of the decennial census, which the Census Bureau will publish in a legacy format this Thursday.

Redistricting criteria refer to a set of rules predetermined by the legislature for map drawers to follow when drawing district lines.

Like other states, North Carolina must comply with the constitutional requirement of “one person, one vote”. The state constitution also mandates the contiguity of districts and as few county splits as possible.

The joint committees proposed a set of criteria for this round of map drawing, which was built upon the 2019 redistricting process:

  1. Equal population, which requires populations in each state House and Senate district to be almost the same with a deviation up to 5% allowed. Congressional districts shall be nearly strictly equal in population.
  2. Contiguity. Districts shall not be severed into disconnected pieces.
  3. County groupings and traversals. The legislature needs to determine county groupings that are of whole numbers of districts first and avoid splitting county lines unless authorized. This requirement is specific to state legislative districts and not congressional districts.
  4. Racial data. Racial data shall not be used in redistricting.
  5. Voting districts should be split minimally.
  6. Compactness. Mapmakers shall make reasonable efforts to avoid drawing dispersed long slivers of districts.
  7. Municipal boundaries. Map drawers may consider municipal boundaries.
  8. Election data. Partisan and election data shall not be used.
  9. Member residence. Member residence may be considered in the formation of legislative and congressional districts.
  10. Community consideration. The proposed criterion would let legislators consider the knowledge and character of communities when deciding which communities should stay intact.

Members of the public say “no” to gerrymandering

Many of those who spoke at the meeting said committee members should guard against racial and partisan gerrymandering — the practice of using racial and partisan data in manipulating maps to achieve partisan gains. Federal and state courts have struck down multiple North Carolina congressional and legislative maps over the past decade after finding evidence of gerrymandering. In a court-ordered redraw in 2019, the legislature banned the use of election data in redistricting.

But as recently as 2016, the criteria for congressional redistricting clearly permitted the use of election data. Indeed, at a hearing of the North Carolina Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting, Rep. David Lewis famously said, “I propose that we draw the maps 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.” The committee ultimately adopted the 10-3 map, but it was later thrown out by a state court in 2019.

Allison Riggs,  co-executive director and chief counsel for the voting rights program at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice

William Doom, a Davidson County resident said creating safe districts for certain legislators lessens government accountability and hurts people’s trust in the democracy. “Your vote has no voice,” Doom said. “That’s the way it feels to many of us in Davidson County.”

Prohibiting the use of racial data and partisan data, though, some argued, doesn’t prevent the knowledge of racial and partisan makeup of a districts from influencing map drawing.

Compared with the 2019 criteria for legislative maps after courts struck down previous maps, the current proposed criteria substitute the incumbent protection clause with consideration for member residence. The provision to protect incumbents is in conflict with the one excluding partisan data, said Allison Riggs, co-executive director and chief counsel for the voting rights program at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

“We know that when you protect incumbents, you protect your ill-gotten gains from a decade of partisan and racial gerrymandering,” Riggs said.

Wording leaves uncertainty

Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat said Monday that some of the criteria are vague in their wording. She said, for instance, the member residence and municipal boundaries provisions do not offer clear instructions as to how these considerations will affect district lines.

Lekha Shupeck, NC state director of All on the Lines

Marcus’ concerns were echoed by Lekha Shupeck, the state director of All On The Line, a grassroots campaign against gerrymandering founded by former Attorney General Eric Holder. Shupeck pointed out that unlike North Carolina’s practice of adopting criteria as part of a legislative rule-making process, some states have written criteria into their state constitutions.

Preserving communities of interests

The community consideration provision is a new criterion. It enjoys wide support from many voting rights groups and meeting attendees. Some groups, including All On The Line and Common Cause NC, have been educating the public on identifying communities of interest that have similar characteristics and should be preserved.

This requirement, though, dates back to a 2003 state Supreme Court decision in Stephenson v. Bartlett that also engendered the county grouping procedure used to comply with the state constitutional requirement of no county splitting.

What other criteria do North Carolinians want?

Several speakers also floated adding proportionality to the criteria. This means having the number of representatives reflect the partisan preferences of voters. The Ohio legislature adopted this criterion.

Robert Cushman, a professional map maker himself, said electoral maps are the root cause of polarization and division. He explained that candidates on the extreme ends of the spectrum tend to win in primaries. “Many independents moderate Republicans and Democrats such as myself, don’t feel like we have any representation when November comes around.”

Shupeck of All On The Lines said she would like to see a formal process for evaluating approved maps for racial and partisan biases.

Members of the House and Senate redistricting committees have until Thursday to file amendments before the final vote on the criteria that same day. Members of the public can continue to submit comments online.

 

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