DURHAM, N.C. — Creating an independent redistricting commission might make intellectual sense. It might cut down on the partisan rancor that occasionally envelopes the state. It might help voters get more excited about more competitive elections.
While none of that has persuaded North Carolina lawmakers over the past two decades, there is something that might: fear.
“The most important argument, in my view, is fear of the unknown,” said John Hood, president of the John William Pope Foundation, part of a conservative network of think tanks and advocacy groups.
Hood was helping to brief a panel of 10 retired judges who have been tapped by the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy and Common Cause North Carolina to experiment with drawing congressional districts through a nonpartisan – or at least bipartisan – redistricting commission.
Large swings in people moving into the state and moving to North Carolina’s population centers, including Raleigh and Charlotte, will mean big swings for the state’s politics, argued Hood and other experts, who spoke throughout Thursday.
“People have some history now to look at that shows neither party is going to be in control forever,” said Tom Ross, a former University of North Carolina president who is now a fellow at Duke. Democrats who used to hold the reins of power are now in the minority, while the current crop of Republican legislative leaders are only a few years removed from being shut out of important decisions.
With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that the state has a reputation as one of the most frequent litigation battleground for redistricting cases. Earlier this spring, lawmakers were forced by federal judges to redraw congressional districts, and state legislative districts are the subject of a similar challenge.
Those maps were drawn, like all others in the state’s history, by the party in power that happened to be in power during the year that followed the census.
Republicans and Democrats have both used that power to draw districts that favor members of their party. For example, when lawmakers recently redrew the state’s congressional districts in response to a federal court order, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, was asked why legislative leaders drew districts designed to create 10 Republican-friendly districts versus only three Democratic-leaning districts.
“The only reason we are drawing 10 districts is because we can’t make 11,” Lewis said.
That viewpoint, while legal, could eventually backfire on both parties, Hood, Ross and others argued. Thursday was the beginning of an exercise to demonstrate how the state could do things differently.
Overcoming fear and uncertainty
Common Cause is a nonpartisan group, although its national parent does have some financial ties to big Democratic backers. Along with others, it has long pushed lawmakers to establish an independent redistricting commission. In a handful of other states, such as Iowa and Arizona, such commissions handle the tasks of redrawing legislative districts to varying degrees.
North Carolina’s legislative leaders have rebuffed such commissions under both Democratic and Republican leaders.
“We do have a time when members of both parties remember what it is like to be without power,” said Bob Phillips, who heads Common Cause’s North Carolina chapter.
The problem advocates for a nonpartisan commission face now is that, after years in the political wilderness, North Carolina Republicans are skeptical of those who would ask them to cede power now that they have legislative majorities.
Which is where fear of the unknown that comes along with a redistricting commission may be overwhelmed by the fear of the unknown that come along with demographic changes.
“Even the parties themselves will face an incentive to fix this,” said Mark Nance, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
That’s because populations are shifting so quickly that no static set of maps that are redrawn every 10 years can guarantee victory going forward.
Creating an independent commission, Nance and others said, creates an insurance policy that no party will find itself shut out of the political process. Democrats, he said, went from controlling the House and the Senate by virtue of supposedly safe seats in 2010 to having so few members now that they’re unable to sustain a gubernatorial veto.
Given that North Carolina has already piled in enough new residents to become the ninth-largest state in the nation, moving up a couple spots since just 2010, big changes are coming in 2020 no matter who is in power. That includes adding another congressional district to the state and shifting districts to follow the population into urban areas.
“Regardless of who controls the process, the map will have to radically shifted,” said Becky Tippett, a demographer with UNC-Chapel Hill.
The commission’s task
The panel of judges – all either former state Supreme Court or Court of Appeals judges – are divided between five Republicans and five Democrats. They will be tasked with synthesizing the litany of federal and state court cases, demographic data and criteria designed to take politics out of the equation into a new map for the state’s 13 members of the U.S. House.
Bill Gilkeson, who worked on redistricting at the General Assembly before moving into private practice, told the judges that they would be using the criteria set up by House Bill 92, the latest piece of redistricting legislation that has been filed.
Some of those criteria are uncontroversial. For example, the mock districts will have to balance in terms of population and will try to keep “political subdivisions” such as cities and counties in a single district whenever possible.
“Partisanship and incumbency, you’re not supposed to look at,” Gilkeson said.
So, the panel isn’t supposed to pay attention to drawing districts that favor one party over another or preserve current officeholders, something that current map makers do. For example, when the legislature drew new congressional districts this spring, lawmakers accidentally left Republican 6th District Congressman Mark Walker outside of his district. Before sending the maps to a vote, lawmakers moved one line a few thousand feet to ensure Walker remained in the district.
Gilkeson gave the judges a tour of one of the tools they would be using to draw the new maps. Electronic mapping tools allow those drawing districts to move pieces of streets and neighborhood from one district to another. While that’s a powerful tool for ensuring districts are balanced, it also allows for cleverly gerrymandered districts to ensure lopsided majorities that are much better than gross voter totals would suggest.
The “sophistication of computer technology” has fostered extreme districts, said Bob Orr, a former Republican Supreme Court justice.
The task for his group would be to turn that technology toward creating more competitive districts. Orr and his colleagues are expected to reconvene in a month and at least one other time to draw those maps.