Lawmakers should take up redistricting before heading home
RALEIGH - The N.C. General Assembly session is gradually winding to a close in Raleigh and big decisions are being made on taxes, spending, education and countless other issues. Despite significant bipartisan support, a rarity in today’s polarized political climate, one extremely vital issue still awaits legislative action -- redistricting reform.
Redistricting reform is too often overlooked and not given the proper consideration it deserves. One could easily argue that it is the single most important structural change needed in government, a reform initiative that would level the playing field for candidates and return political power to its rightful place, with the voters.
Under the current system, legislators are responsible for drawing their own districts after the latest U.S. Census, leading to voting maps crafted to benefit whichever party happens to be in control of the legislature when redistricting rolls around every 10 years. Both parties have wielded redistricting authority to stack districts in their favor, and each party has also felt the sting of being in the minority during the map-drawing process.
As such, unlike many other proposals in the General Assembly, redistricting reform enjoys true bipartisan support. House Bill 606 would move us toward a nonpartisan redistricting process. The measure was introduced in the N.C. House by two Republicans and two Democrats, who were then joined as cosponsors by 57 of their colleagues. For those keeping score, that equals 61 representatives, or a majority of the House. On top of that, House Speaker Thom Tillis has publicly expressed his support for such a proposal as well.
It’s not just lawmakers in Raleigh that favor reform, either. North Carolina voters overwhelmingly support measures that would take politics out of redistricting and hand the responsibility for crafting new legislative and congressional maps over to nonpartisan legislative staff, rather than having politicians draw their own districts.
A recent poll by the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Voter Education shows that 68 percent of voters are concerned about the effect of partisan politics on redistricting and 70 percent support taking redistricting power away from legislators and giving it to nonpartisan legislative staff, as proposed in House Bill 606. This strong support is expressed by Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters alike.
Perhaps the most significant part about this reform legislation is it would not go into effect until after the next census in 2020. This means that even if it were signed into law by the governor tomorrow, it would not have any practical implication on the current maps. So consider redistricting reform an insurance policy for both parties since nobody has any idea who will control the General Assembly in 2021.
With support from voters, lawmakers and organizations from across the political spectrum, one can only hope that the General Assembly will take up the issue and pass redistricting reform before they leave town for the year. It’s too big and too important an issue to be left on the table when everyone goes home and the halls of the General Assembly remain empty until next spring.
The voters want it. A majority of the N.C. House wants it. The time is now to step up and pass real, comprehensive redistricting reform. Every year we get closer to 2020 the more political this issue will get. So let’s take care of it once and for all right now and move toward a system where voters choose their representatives, instead of representatives choosing their voters.
(Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping citizens fully participate in democracy.)