House Bill 200, which would take effect for the 2021 redistricting cycle, would appoint a nonpartisan legislative staff to create congressional and state legislative maps completely blind of political consideration.
The bill was sponsored by Reps. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford; Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe; Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson; and Sarah Stevens, R-Surry.
“Independent redistricting puts North Carolina citizens ahead of party politics,” Jordan said in a press release. “This proposal will ensure that our voting maps are drawn in a fair and impartial way that accurately reflects our state’s population.”
Robert Joyce, a professor in the UNC School of Government, said redistricting currently works just like the passage of any other legislation, and any legislator can introduce a bill.
“As a practical matter, what has happened over the last several decades is that the party that’s in charge of the General Assembly has been able to come up with plans favorable to it and then pass those in through the General Assembly,” he said.
Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly employ specialists to help them come up with a redistricting plan that is favorable to their party, Joyce said.
This has consistently led to voting maps that heavily favor one party or the other and reduce competition at the ballot box. Since 1992, nearly half of all legislative races have had only one candidate on the ballot and only one in 10 of last year’s legislative races were competitive, according to a press release from Common Cause.
North Carolina’s legislative districts were found to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered on the basis of race in a July 2016 ruling in federal court.
The new bill would require nonpartisan legislative staff to follow strict guidelines when drawing voting districts without input from legislators. The finished maps would then be sent to the full legislature for an up or down vote.
Joyce said some voters in the state are interested in less partisan redistricting. According to a January survey by Public Policy Polling, 59 percent of North Carolina voters support drawing district lines in a nonpartisan fashion, while only 15 percent are opposed to it.
“I think that there is a sense in the state that it would be good to do something,” Joyce said.
Similar proposals have been introduced in the past without success. One was approved by the N.C. House with bipartisan support in 2011 but did not receive a vote in the N.C. Senate. It was reintroduced in 2013 and 2015, but the bill was stalled in committee both times.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said in an email that the people drawing the districts will have political leanings to some extent.
“Acknowledging political considerations are involved in inherently political undertakings is simply being honest with all involved,” he said in the email.
Lewis said the new bill would not completely alleviate conflict about redistricting.
“I will also note that non-partisan redistricting does not eliminate the lawsuits (that) will arise by those wishing a different outcome to the redistricting process and because of differing interpretations of the laws,” Lewis said.
Joyce said the bill will have to go through a long process to be signed into law, facing numerous committees and potential for amendments.
“Whatever redistricting bill might eventually pass — if one does — might or might not closely resemble what you and I have just been looking at,” he said. “If something passed that was just like what the bill that has been introduced does, it would significantly change the process.”