News: CJ Exclusives

Redistricting coalition faces tough odds in General Assembly

Broad ideological coalition says changing demographics should bring about nonpartisan reforms; Lewis doubts plans would give desired results

Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, endorses redistricting reform at a Wednesday press conference. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)
Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, endorses redistricting reform at a Wednesday press conference. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)

A coalition of policy and advocacy groups renewed their efforts to convince the General Assembly to set up an independent redistricting process based on a model adopted in Iowa as a means of ending partisan gerrymandering.

The Iowa redistricting model empowers the nonpartisan legislative staff to draw the congressional and legislative maps. It emphasizes compactness, and doesn’t allow the staff to take incumbency or partisanship into consideration.

The appeal to lawmakers came hours before the 2017 General Assembly was set to begin its long session, and it’s likely to face a skeptical reception.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who chairs the House Rules Committee and co-chairs the House Elections Committee, attended the final portion of the press conference.

“I think a lot of the merits that are portrayed that the Iowa plan brings — reduce litigation, better product, more participation, more people running for office — frankly just don’t bear out,” Lewis said. “If you look at the number of unopposed seats in Iowa, the legislature, it was roughly comparable with what we had here.”

Backers of the plan argue that now is the best time to establish a nonpartisan process for redrawing congressional and legislative maps.

“Demographics have changed and no party knows exactly where those demographics are going to land in 2020 and after that,”said Rick Glazier, executive director of the liberal N.C. Justice Center and a former state representative. “The best time to do redistricting reform is always going to be when there are questions for either side.”

Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, noted that redistricting has attracted recent headlines in North Carolina. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of a lower court’s order for the General Assembly to redraw legislative districts by March 15 and to hold elections under those new maps this fall.

“It is entirely consistent to argue that the maps for the 2012 elections and those drawn for the 2016 elections on the congressional side were legal and constitutional, but also bad,” Kokai said. “Just because the lawmakers can draw the districts the way they have doesn’t mean that they should.”

Lewis appeared not to be swayed by the coalition’s arguments. “I maintain that partisanship is a part of who each and every one of us are,” Lewis said. “So we can claim that we do not intend to exercise partisanship, but I think it’s more honest to say that partisanship is a part of who we are and will always be a part — not the sole, not the defining — requirement of redistricting or most anything else we do. But it will always be a part of what we do.”

Lewis said it’s “either naïve or disingenuous” to say that anything can truly be nonpartisan.

Other groups supporting the nonpartisan redistricting process include AARP North Carolina, NC Policy Watch, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause NC, the NC Sierra Club, the NC Conservation Network, NC Women United, and Democracy NC.