“Let’s be candid: this is all about power.”
Those were the words of Bob Orr, executive director of North Carolinians for Constitutional Law and a former North Carolina gubernatorial candidate and Supreme Court judge. Orr was one of three speakers to address the 50 to 60 people who attended the free screening of the documentary film, Gerrymandering, at UNCA’s Reuter Center June 16. Other speakers included Kathleen Balogh, president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, and Brent Laurenz of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education. All three organizations are part of the North Carolina Coalition for Redistricting Reform, a non-partisan coalition of 10 organizations lobbying in favor of a redistricting model that removes district line-drawing power from the legislature and rests that power with an independent body.
The film, Gerrymandering, is a surprisingly engaging, compelling and bipartisan look at the redistricting process used in the United States, and the frequent abuse of the process known as gerrymandering. The film points out that the United States is the only developed country that uses such a system, pointing out that both Britain and Canada have moved on to other systems. Both the UK and Canada authorize nonpartisan organizations to draw district lines, whereas in the United States, legislators are responsible for setting the boundaries of their own districts.
In the film, David Winston, a GOP redistricting consultant, illuminates the flaws in our current redistricting process. He explains that, “as a mapmaker, I can have more of an impact on an election than a campaign … more of an impact than a candidate. When I, as a mapmaker, have more of an impact on an election than the voters … the system is out of whack.”
The film included powerful quotes from many political leaders and highlighted the organizing efforts behind Proposition 11 in California. Proposition 11, the Voters First Act, sought to shift the control of the redistricting process, which happens every ten years, from the legislature to an independent 14-member commission. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who advocated for Proposition 11 along with many organizations including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the NAACP, ACLU and AARP, explains that, within the redistricting process of gerrymandering, “the legislators get to pick their voters, rather than the voters picking their politicians.” Even President Barack Obama is quoted in the film empathizing with those who choose not to vote on election day. Obama says that given the political practice of gerrymandering, “people aren’t being illogical when they stay at home, because the outcome is a foregone conclusion.”
As flawed a process as this may seem, disillusioned voters can take some comfort in the fact that NC House Bill 824, Nonpartisan Redistricting Process, recently passed the North Carolina House with bipartisan support. Rep. Ray Rapp, who represents Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties in Western North Carolina, is one of the primary sponsors of this bill. Rep. Susan Fisher of Buncombe County is a co-sponsor. The bill, endorsed by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause of North Carolina, and other advocates for redistricting reform, is now in the Rules and Operations Committee of the state Senate (as of June 10).
As for the current status of our state’s legislative districting process, preliminary maps for districts covered by the Voting Rights Act, which bans racial discrimination in voting practices, were released June 17. Draft maps for the remaining congressional districts, including Buncombe County, are scheduled to be released July 1, followed by a public hearing to discuss those maps on July 7. The full legislative maps will be released July 11, followed by a public hearing on July 18. The video conference of the hearing will be streamed live on the North Carolina General Assembly website. Those who would like to submit comments to be included in the public record may do so online or they can mail comments to: Redistricting Committee, 300 N. Salisbury St., Suite 545 Legislative Office Building, Raleigh, NC 27603. Satellite public hearing locations of the July 7 and July 18 hearings are expected to be scheduled in Western North Carolina, but detailed information is not available as of this writing.
Karen Oelschlaeger is the online communications director for the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County