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RALEIGH — When it comes to North Carolina redistricting, the handwriting is on the wall. The old system for producing legislative and congressional districts is going away. But we still don’t have agreement about what happens next — how to interpret that handwriting, in other words.
A few weeks ago, a panel of three Superior Court judges threw out the state’s legislative districts, concluding that they were an “extreme” gerrymander in contravention of state constitutional protections of free elections, equal protection, free speech and free association.
The judges ordered the General Assembly to redraw the maps immediately, using a process open to public scrutiny and devoted to the public interest rather than partisan advantage. Lawmakers complied. The resulting House and Senate districts were relatively compact, respectful of local boundaries and more likely to produce competitive elections according to independent analysts, including an in-depth statistical evaluation for WRAL-TV news.
On Monday, the three-judge panel accepted the result. Simultaneously, the same panel granted an injunction in a separate lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s congressional districts on the same grounds as the legislative ones were challenged. It seems likely that the judges will order the same remedy.
There are some very angry Republican and Democratic activists right now. Republicans didn’t agree with the initial decision on the legislative maps and now dislike the idea of having to redraw the congressional ones quickly, with candidate filing for the 2020 elections scheduled to begin in December.
Many Democrats are happy about the congressional case but disappointed that the three-judge panel didn’t have its “special master,” a professor from California, redraw the General Assembly districts. They believe that too much deference to county lines, for example, puts Democrats in a disadvantageous position because their political base is disproportionately urban.
Their best hope for capturing the legislature is to reorganize the county clusters so they can attach clumps of urban voters to surrounding suburban and rural communities, creating new blue-leaning seats. That’s part of what they wanted the court to do. But to the extent the state constitution contains provisions designed to protect the interest of voters against self-interested parties, the argument must cut both ways.
Redistricting reform cannot itself be a partisan endeavor. Both political camps have to be willing to accept outcomes that don’t maximize their partisan interests but at least reduce their downside risk (of being egregiously gerrymandered) while giving voters more intelligible and competitive electoral districts.
The successful process ordered by the court for legislative maps, and likely to recur with the congressional ones, now needs to be endorsed by the general public and codified in law so that future legislatures won’t need the threat of litigation to do what is right. Fortunately, there is a vehicle for doing just that: House Bill 140, known as the FAIR Act.
It has two parts. The first would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot for voter approval next year. It would essentially adopt for all time the criteria used last month for the legislative maps, albeit with additional protections against favoring incumbents over challengers. The second part of the FAIR Act would improve on last month’s process in three ways:
• 1) by having the nonpartisan legislative staff, not individual members, draw maps;
• 2) by requiring a series of public hearings; and
• 3) by setting up a five-member advisory commission — two Democrats, two Republicans, and a final member chose by three of the other four — to settle disputes about criteria and hold the public hearings.
Some reformers would rather have an independent commission draw the maps, but recent experience makes this a nonstarter. In other states, “nonpartisan” slots have been filled by individuals who turned out to have partisan preferences. In North Carolina, we’ve seen people change their party registrations to fill such slots on other boards.
North Carolina now has fairer legislative districts because a court ordered the General Assembly to open up the process and stick to neutral criteria. Let’s make that a permanent feature of our political process.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “N.C. Spin,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.