News: CJ Exclusives

Senate picks base NCGA map but House map drawers make scant progress

CJ graphic
CJ graphic

North Carolina’s voter map drama turned more theatrical, as state senators literally rolled out a lottery machine to randomly select their starter map.

It was one of several bizarre events during the second day of House and Senate redistricting committee meetings Tuesday, Sept. 10. Members disrupted proceedings with chaotic arguments and motions. Staffers sorted map data, only to be confused by Excel spreadsheets. Legislators grandstanded before cameras. 

By the end of the day, the Senate had decided on a base map, which can be tweaked by the committee. But the House was no closer to getting things off the ground.

Both chambers are under court order to produce new voter maps for state legislative districts by Sept. 18. A handful of county groupings on the old maps are unconstitutional, an excessively partisan gerrymander, a three-judge panel ruled earlier this month in the Common Cause v. Lewis lawsuit. Legislators now must create maps without considering partisan data. They also must publicize the process.

Notably, they’re not allowed to use the old maps as a starting point. Republicans proposed that lawmakers use model maps — drawn by redistricting expert Jowei Chen — as their canvas. Chen, a University of Michigan political scientist — was an expert witness for plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis. Republicans will use Chen’s maps as a starting point, thus complying with the court, majority leaders from both chambers said.  

This has wreaked havoc in both the House and Senate redistricting committees — although the Senate reduced friction by picking Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, and Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake — the senior members of each party on the committee — to navigate a path through conflicting amendments and motions. By late afternoon, members had distilled the top five options for seven county groupings, then used the lottery machine to select the new map from those options. 

In the House, things are more contentious. 

At the close of Monday’s proceedings, House committee members received an email from the attorneys representing the GOP defendants. A link with partisan data — which the court ordered can’t be used in making new maps — was attached. The incident drew questions about possible violations of the judges’ order.

Tuesday morning, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the senior chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, maintained that no violations had occurred, but told House members that Republicans were awaiting further direction from attorneys. The House committee was stagnant for hours, reconvening late in the day.

Then, members argued — getting virtually nothing accomplished before adjourning around 7 p.m.

Protecting incumbents from running against one another, which the court permitted in its order, is a growing sore spot between Democrats and Republicans. The minority party made multiple motions to use a set of Chen’s 2,000 map simulations that exclude incumbent information. All were rejected.

The maps were approved by the court, as was incumbency protection, Rep. Kelly Hastings, R-Watauga, said in a heated debate with Rep. Deb. Butler, D-New Hanover.

The court didn’t say that incumbency should be used. It said that it may be used, Butler said.

“If you’re looking for the purest maps, devoid of any partisan influence, you don’t look at incumbency,” Butler said. 

“The gentle lady said she did not agree with the fact that the court allowed incumbency to be used. So does that mean that she disagrees with the ruling?” Hastings said.

“I embrace it fully,” she said.

The N.C. Democratic Party was a plaintiff in Common Cause v. Lewis. Republicans criticize Democrats’ recent opposition to Chen’s maps — the same maps that were used as the winning evidence in that case.

Several Senate Democrats voted against the Chen maps, arguing the legislature should build one from scratch. 

The Democratic end game is unclear, said Andy Taylor, professor of political science at N.C. State University. It’s possible the party is playing offense, trying to get the best maps possible for their team. It’s also possible they are prolonging talks about gerrymandering — a topic that’s currently put an unflattering spotlight on Republicans.

“It’s possible that could be counterproductive at some stage,” Taylor said. “It could seem obstructionist, as though they’re speaking out of both sides of their mouth.”