Whatever the tenor or outcome of the N.C. General Assembly’s 2011 redistricting plan — originally due to be released June 1 for a final round of public scrutiny — its process has attracted both national attention and reform-minded state scrutiny.
With regard to the latter, an across-the-aisles coalition has formed North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, a nonprofit organization aiming to remove the redistricting task from the hands of state legislators and place the job with an independent body to ensure an open, public-driven process. Or, as Damon Circosta, director of member-organization N.C. Center for Voter Education, explains on the NCRR website — 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.”
NCRR appears to be a remarkably balanced coalition that currently includes AARP North Carolina, ACLU N.C., Common Cause N.C., Free the Vote N.C., John Locke Foundation, N.C., League of Women Voters N.C., NC Policy Watch, N.C. Center for Voter Education, N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, and N.C. League of Conservation Voters. And as part of their statewide campaign, the group is bringing the film “Gerrymandering” to Asheville on June 16 for a 6 p.m. free showing to the public in the Reuter Center on the UNCA campus. The film will be followed by a discussion on redistricting and its implications in this state.
And there’s a lot to discuss. First, the history of redistricting in North Carolina and its mandatory legal scrutiny tends to make it a stand-out state (see overview on the N.C. Legislature’s website, and background from April 18 Xpress) And in this year’s political climate, the state has drawn the attention of no less than The Washington Post, which labels North Carolina “the GOP’s golden goose of redistricting” — noting a chance of bringing two additional Republican congressional representatives into the political fold. The national blog Politico has contributed to the fairness debate as well via “Race Politics Hit North Carolina Redistricting,” which takes aim at the speculative potential for a new majority-minority district that would skew the status quo in the state.
Meanwhile, although the 2011 redistricting has been a GOP-dominated process due to the Legislature’s makeup, it has entailed public hearings across the state and a mechanism for online comments, and will include additional public input following the release of the proposed maps. Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, who chairs the Senate’s Redistricting Committee, has told the Charlotte Observer that after the maps are released, there will be a public hearing in Raleigh with satellite hookups to four other sites. But Rucho’s target date for those maps was June 1, and according to Buncombe County’s Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt, 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 told Xpress by email yesterday.
So however balanced — or not — the Legislature’s newly proposed or ultimately adopted maps may be, the specter of partisanship looms large. And calls for an independent redistricting method cross the political spectrum. (Granted, similar calls fell on deaf ears while the Democrats held sway in the General Assembly for decades.) In addition to the public focus through NCRR, there is actually a legislative push for independence that includes three separate bills filed this session, though none have moved much further than introduction in their respective chambers.
Both HB 783 (Independent Redistricting Commission) and SB 591 (Horton Independent Redistricting Commission) call for a state constitutional amendment to replace the current mandate of legislative control. HB 824 (Nonpartisan Redistricting Process) 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 bipartisan sponsorship, if minimal; HB 824, however, has a good mix of Republican and Democratic sponsors that include WMC Democrats Ray Rapp (primary sponsor), Madison County, and Susan Fisher (co-sponsor), Buncombe County.
(Note: Two useful websites for visual analysis of North Carolina’s redistricting are WRAL.com, which illustrates current districts and representatives with an added feature showing the Legislature’s redistricting committee members and their geographical clusters, and The Community Census & Redistricting Institute, which concentrates on minority representation and full enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.)
Activity in the Legislature over the past week, in addition to the unveiling of the Senate’s version of the proposed state budget (HB 200) that now must be reconciled with the House version, included approval of HB 242 (Natural Gas/Bonds/Fees/Studies) by the House Finance Committee and forwarding to Appropriations, and Senate passage of SB 709 (Energy Jobs Bill), which now moves to the House. The News & Observer of Raleigh dubs these the “Go Slow” and “Hurry Up” bills, respectively, when it comes to legalizing ithe controversial natural-gas recovery method of horizontal drilling, known as fracking, in this state.
Hearings this week involving WNC legislator sponsorship include the following:
HB 241 (N.C. Firearms Freedom Act): A look-alike bill similar to state bills around the nation that exempts from federal regulation all firearms, accessories and ammunition manufactured and retained in this state. Co-sponsor, Republican Phillip Frye, Avery/Caldwell/Mitchell/Yancey counties. House Judiciary A, 10 a.m., Wednesday.
HB 587 (N.C. Jobs Bill): A bill to “promote North Carolina job growth through regulatory reform.” Co-sponsors Frye and Tim Moffitt, Republican, Buncombe County. House Commerce and Job Development Subcommittee on Business and Labor, 10 a.m., Wednesday.
HB 732 (Tort Reform Act): Rewrites attribution of responsibility and damage determination in personal injury, wrongful death and harm to property cases. Co-sponsor, Moffitt. House Judiciary A, 10 a.m., Wednesday.
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor
EDITOR’S NOTE (JUNE 3): The original web version of this story incorrectly identified Damon Circosta as executive director of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform; he is executive director of the coalition’s member organization, N.C. Center for Voter Education. The original also listed the League of Conservative Voters as a member organization; the correct name should have been League of Conservation Voters.