Citizens speak out on NC congressional maps
A whirlwind week of controversial and politically charged redistricting ended on Friday just hours before a federal court's deadline requiring North Carolina lawmakers to redraw congressional districts found to be racially gerrymandered. And with the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to stay the lower court's ruling, more twists and turns could be on the way.
Earlier this month, a panel of three federal judges ruled that the Republican-led legislature had relied too heavily on race when crafting North Carolina's 1st and 12th congressional districts. Legislative leaders responded last week by saying they would ignore race entirely when redrawing the districts, a move that Democrats warned went to far in the opposite direction and could violate the Voting Rights Act.
At the same time, Republican legislative leaders openly declared that their aim was to create politically gerrymandered congressional maps that would favor GOP candidates in 10 of the state's 13 districts.
"I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander, which is not against the law," said Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), who co-chaired the committee that redrew the congressional voting maps.
That frank admission highlighted the highly partisan nature of having politicians craft the state's congressional and legislative voting maps.
"As long as partisan politicians are in charge of drawing North Carolina's voting maps, our state's redistricting process will continue to be deeply flawed regardless of which party is in power," said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. "Our state needs an impartial redistricting process that ignores all political consideration and puts voters ahead of partisanship."
Over 70 citizens participated in a five-hour-long public forum in six cities across North Carolina on Monday, weighing in on the state's congressional districts and the redistricting process. While several speakers at the hearing defended the Republican-drawn maps, most were critical of the districts and of gerrymandering in particular.
In addition to the dozens who spoke at locations in Raleigh, Charlotte, Asheville, Fayetteville, Weldon and Wilmington, nearly 400 citizens submitted written comments to the joint redistricting committee spearheading the task of redrawing the districts.
Ultimately, the new congressional maps were approved largely along party lines. Lawmakers also pushed back congressional primary elections to June 7, while keeping the state's other primary elections on Mar. 15. The altered congressional maps could still face additional judicial scrutiny.
Coincidentally, the special redistricting session came exactly one year after a bipartisan majority of NC House members signed on as co-sponsors of House Bill 92, which could take map-drawing power out of the hands of partisan lawmakers and give it to nonpartisan legislative staff.
That plan is patterned after a system used in Iowa for over 30 years. And as reform supporters note, during that time North Carolina's voting maps have been challenged 18 times in court, while Iowa's have not once been challenged since adopting a nonpartisan redistricting process.