Efforts to end gerrymandering in North Carolina get mixed reviews

Both governor candidates, former governors support reform
Oct 05, 2016

At a recent candidate forum sponsored by Mountaineer Publishing, legislative candidates were evenly split on the issue of a bipartisan effort to oversee redistricting efforts, something required by the U.S. Constitution.

States have the responsibility to draw Congressional districts with an equal number of residents and to divide the state into legislative districts, as well. This happens once a year after the decennial census.

In recent years, highly partisan districts have resulted in districts so noncompetitive that often voters have no general election ballot choice in the majority of districts.

Republican candidates seeking seats in the 118th and 119 house districts and the 50th senate district opposed a neutral commission to determine Congressional and legislative boundaries. Democratic candidates in the districts favored a neutral commission.

Sen. Jim Davis said each way has perils.

"But elections have consequences," he said. "What happens when you win elections is you have the majority in the legislature, and that affords the opportunity to draw districts. So long as that is done in a fair and legal way and they pass Constitutional muster, that's the way our system works."

Rep. Michele Presnell said she would "absolutely not" support the idea of an independent nonpartisan redistricting commission.

"There's nothing that even begins to say nonpartisan when you go to something like that," he said. "The other party (Democrats) has had 140 years, and they never suggested we do a nonpartisan (commission)."

Mike Clampitt, who is challenging Rep. Joe Sam Queen, is opposed so a redistricting commission, while Queen, Jane Hipps, who is challenging Davis, and Rhonda Schandevel, who is challenging Presnell, all support it.

A new coalition of 50 businesses, “NC Business Leaders for Accountability” argues that partisan gerrymandering is polarizing North Carolina’s politics and undermining the state’s business climate as politicians cater to a narrow set of interests.

The coalition is calling for an independent redistricting process that ends partisan gerrymandering and creates voting districts that better reflect North Carolina’s population.

“Gerrymandering undermines competition in North Carolina's elections, which allows candidates to have views that don't represent the public — and that's bad for business in our state," said David Meeker, a Raleigh small business owner who helped organize the coalition. “We need an impartial redistricting process that allows citizens to have a real voice in choosing their representatives.”

The coalition is working with the nonpartisan public-interest group Common Cause North Carolina in its effort to end gerrymandering.

“Redistricting reform is essential to strengthening our democracy,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC. “The business community’s voice is vital to help us end gerrymandering in North Carolina once and for all.”

North Carolina has long felt the negative impact of partisan gerrymandering, Phillips explained in a news release. Since 1992, nearly half of all legislative races have had just one candidate on the ballot, leaving millions of voters with no choice at the ballot box. Similarly, the state's congressional maps have been gerrymandered by the legislature in such a way as to minimize competition, undermining the right of voters to have a voice in who represents them.

In the face of ongoing gerrymandering, there has been growing bipartisan support for reform, Hall continued. Last year, a majority of NC House members co-sponsored House Bill 92, which would have taken the power of redistricting out of the hands of partisan legislators and given it to nonpartisan legislative staff. However, that bill was not given a vote in the legislature.

At the same time, over 240 civic leaders across North Carolina have signed a petition calling on the legislature to pass independent redistricting reform. Both Gov. Pat McCrory and his 2016 gubernatorial opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, are on record opposing gerrymandering, as are former governors Jim Martin and Jim Hunt.

In August, Common Cause filed a potentially landmark lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering.

North Carolina lawmakers approved a congressional district map in July 2011, but ongoing lawsuits ultimately led to a federal court ruling that the legislative approved redistricting plan constituted  racial gerrymandering. New maps were drawn, ultimately North Carolina held three primary elections in 2016 — one for the presidential primaries, one during the traditional May date, and another in June made necessary by the court ruling.