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Political leaders and experts consider reality of North Carolina redistricting reforms

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Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly passed new congressional and state legislative maps for the 2024 election on Oct. 25.

Three months later, on Jan. 25, the North Carolina Democratic congressional delegation proposed sweeping reforms for the map-making process at the federal level.

The proposed bill, H.R. 7095, is titled the Redistricting Transparency and Accountability Act. It would require that legislators create a website showing the policies used in creating maps. The website would also show any documents submitted by any person or group, demographic and election data and video of any relevant meetings.

The bill requires at least three public hearings to allow for public comment on the proposed plans and for all information about the plans to be posted on the website at least 10 days before a final vote.

Michael Bitzer, the chair of Catawba College's politics department, said a party’s view on redistricting reform seems to change depending on who is in power.

From 1999 to 2010, Democrats controlled both chambers of the legislature and held the governorship. Bitzer said, during that period, Republicans were very vocal about needing independent redistricting.

Both N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland, Rutherford) and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham) sponsored a bill in 2009 to establish an independent redistricting commission.

“Once they came to power in 2011, the shoe was on the other foot, and you heard very little about independent redistricting from Republicans,” he said. “And then you saw Democrats pick up that issue.”

The new state senate and congressional maps were graded 'F' by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which provides nonpartisan analysis of district maps across the country. The reason cited for the grades is "significant Republican advantage."

H.R. 7095, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C. 2nd), was supported by the other six House Democrats from North Carolina. All 14 of North Carolina’s representatives won their seats with a congressional map drawn by judges in 2022 after the one drawn by the legislature was thrown out for being an illegal partisan gerrymander.

Three out of the seven representatives, Reps. Jeff Jackson (D-N.C. 14th), Kathy Manning (D-N.C. 6th) and Wiley Nickel (D-N.C. 13th), were all drawn out of their districts and decided not to seek reelection.

A few weeks before redistricting began, the state’s 2023-25 budget was passed — which included a provision exempting legislators from the public records law governing all other government branches. But, experts suggest that requiring legislators to publish relevant documents likely would not have made much of a difference in the final maps.

Andy Jackson, the director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation, said a more effective reform would be limiting the use of data to blunt the surgical precision used to make districts as advantageous as possible.

This is not the first time Democrats in Congress tried to pass redistricting reforms. In recent years, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif. 18th) sponsored H.R. 3572, the Redistricting Reform Act of 2019, which would have required states to establish a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission. It died in the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Two years later, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced S.2670, Redistricting Reform Act of 2021.  This bill was the same as the one from 2019, but it died on the Senate floor.

In 2022, the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank, found that state redistricting reforms work across the U.S. if politicians were removed from the map-drawing process.

“Ultimately, what we need is a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission, and the process of redistricting needs to be removed from the direct control of the legislature,” Ann Webb, the policy director of Common Cause North Carolina, said. 

Common Cause North Carolina, along with the N.C. NAACP and eight Black voters, filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina state legislature in December, calling all three new maps unconstitutional. While there hasn't been much success in getting federal redistricting reforms passed, seven states have switched to independent commissioners drawing the maps rather than legislators.

In some states, the legislature proposed the change, but in others, like California and Arizona, voters put the issue on the ballot and passed it themselves.

North Carolina does not have a system for voters to put issues directly on the ballot, so the change would come from the state legislature or the federal government.

N.C. House Minority Leader Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham, Randolph) said he believes Democrats would fight for independent redistricting if they were in power and that there’s an appetite for change in the Republican ranks but not leadership.

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“It’s frustrating because it's going to take somebody in power being responsible,” he said.

@fanning_sophia

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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