NCmatters: Drawing lessons

Whatever the outcome of the N.C. General Assembly’s 2011 redistricting, the process has already attracted both national and state-level scrutiny.

An across-the-aisle coalition has formed North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, a nonprofit that aims to take redistricting away from state legislators in favor of an independent body to ensure an open, public-driven process. As Executive Director Damon Circosta of the N.C. Center for Voter Education put it, paraphrasing the late Sen. Ham Horton: “We need to get away from a system where legislators choose their voters, instead of voters choosing their legislators.”

The coalition appears remarkably balanced. Current members include: the state chapters of the AARP, ACLU, Common Cause and League of Women Voters, as well as Free the Vote N.C., the John Locke Foundation, NC Policy Watch, the N.C. Center for Voter Education, the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law and the N.C. League of Conservation Voters. As part of its statewide campaign, the redistricting group is bringing the film Gerrymandering to Asheville Thursday, June 16 for a free 6 p.m. screening in UNCA’s Reuter Center. A discussion of redistricting’s implications for this state will follow.

There’s plenty to discuss. The history of redistricting in North Carolina and federal voting-rights and anti-racial gerrymandering requirements tend to make this a standout state (see overview on the Legislature’s website, and “Playing the Numbers,” April 18 Xpress). The Washington Post has called North Carolina “the GOP’s golden goose of redistricting,” noting a chance to bring two additional congressional seats into the Republican fold. The national blog Politico has contributed to the fairness debate as well: A May 4 post, “Race Politics Hit North Carolina Redistricting,” takes aim at the speculative potential for a new majority/minority district that would skew the status quo in the state.

Due to the Legislature’s current makeup, the GOP has dominated the 2011 redistricting process. But there have also been public hearings across the state, plus a mechanism for online comments, and there’ll be additional opportunity for public input following the release of the proposed maps. Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, who chairs the Senate’s Redistricting Committee, told The Charlotte Observer that another public hearing will be held in Raleigh, with satellite hookups to four other sites.

But Rucho’s target date was June 1, and according to Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt of Buncombe County, there are no maps in sight. “The focus right now is the budget, and nothing regarding redistricting will take place until after that time. I have yet to see any maps at all, and I’m on the committee,” Moffitt explained in a May 30 email.

And however balanced — or not — the Legislature’s redistricting effort proves to be, the specter of partisanship looms large. Meanwhile, across the political spectrum, there are calls for an independent redistricting mechanism. (Similar calls, of course, fell on deaf ears during the decades when the Democrats held sway in the General Assembly.)

In addition to the efforts of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, three bills filed this session have a similar objective, though none has made significant progress to date.

Both HB 783 and SB 591 call for amending the state constitution to eliminate legislative control over redistricting. HB 824 would amend state law to create a Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission through a process that steps away from total control by legislators. All three bills have at least minimal bipartisan sponsorship; HB 824, however, has a good mix of Republican and Democratic sponsors, including WNC Democrats Ray Rapp (primary sponsor) of Madison County and Susan Fisher (co-sponsor) of Buncombe.

Meanwhile, the Senate unveiled its version of the proposed state budget, which must now be reconciled with the House version. Other recent legislative action included: the House Finance Committee’s approval of HB 242 (Natural Gas/Bonds/Fees/Studies), which was forwarded to Appropriations; and Senate passage of SB 709 (Energy Jobs Bill), which now moves to the House. The News & Observer of Raleigh has dubbed these the “Go Slow” and “Hurry Up” bills, respectively, when it comes to legalizing the controversial natural-gas recovery method of horizontal drilling, known as fracking, in this state.

(Note: A useful website for understanding North Carolina’s redistricting is wral.com/news/state/nccapitol/page/9135664, which illustrates current districts and representatives, as well as the members of the Redistricting Committee and which areas they represent. The Community Census & Redistricting Institute site focuses on minority representation and full enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.)

— Nelda Holder can be reached at nfholder@gmail.com.

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