News: CJ Exclusives

Tempers Flare As Redistricting Process Gets Underway in NCGA

GOP says process will be fair, legal, and lawsuit-free

New district maps aren’t out yet, but Republicans and Democrats on a joint House and Senate legislative panel are still finding plenty to argue about.

Next to the budget, redistricting could prove to be lawmakers’ most partisan task this year — and that’s saying a lot given the controversial lineup of bills pushed by the GOP during the first eight weeks of the legislative session.

Armed with new population data from the 2010 census, legislators are tasked with redrawing the boundaries for 120 House districts, 50 Senate districts, and 13 congressional districts. It’s a mission that’s already prompting partisan squabbles.

At their first meeting Wednesday, members of the joint redistricting committee bickered over a seemingly simple decision — which lawmakers should serve on the committee. Democrats pushed for two options — Sens. Dan Blue of Wake County and Dan Clodfelter of Mecklenburg County, both veterans of the last redistricting battle 10 years ago when Democrats were in control.

Republicans wanted no part of it. Senate Redistricting Chairman Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said he wasn’t willing to replace non-attorneys on the committee with lawyers such as Blue and Clodfelter.

“For the first time in a long time, we’re going to try to have normal people lead this,” Rucho said, “because redistricting shouldn’t be that difficult to understand.”

Nesbitt countered that Rucho’s decision was shortsighted and partisan.

“We are left with a redistricting committee that doesn’t include the two senators in this body with the most experience in redistricting,” he said. “I can only conclude that Blue and Clodfelter were excluded because of their knowledge and experience.”

‘Stay out of court’

It was a fractious way to launch what Republicans hope to be a two-month long redistricting process. In charge of map drawing for the first time in over a century, the GOP aims for a June 1 drop-dead date for having new lines in place.

Even more ambitious, Rucho says the maps will gain immediate clearance from the U.S. Justice Department and, more importantly, avoid lawsuits.

“My goal is to make sure that we stay out of court, put normal people in the process, and show that this can be done fair and legally without any gerrymandering,” he said.

Political experts say that avoiding a court fight is unlikely considering North Carolina’s litigation-ridden past on redistricting. The Tar Heel State has been the subject of several high-profile court cases involving district boundaries.

“First you’ve got the legal constraints, and then you’ve got the political,” said Peace College political science professor David McLennan. “Those two often intersect one another, and that’s often the basis of the lawsuit.”

Although Republicans have pledged to draw equitable districts, the final result is sure to have partisan flavoring. That’s because lawmakers can draw district boundaries however they choose, provided they obey a handful of state and federal requirements.

The outcome: enormous clout for the ruling party.

Even so, the GOP has pledged an even hand. “We’re going to show you how to do it fair and legal,” Rucho told the joint committee Wednesday.

Nesbitt wasn’t buying it. “At this point in time, it’s been neither fair nor can I anticipate that it will be in the future,” he said.

Urban growth

In keeping with past trends, unadjusted data from the 2010 Census reflect a continued migration from North Carolina’s rural counties to its urban centers. Mecklenburg and Wake counties will gain legislative and congressional seats at the expense of counties in the eastern and western parts of the state.

How lawmakers choose to divide those seats is a big question mark. If Republicans want to be rankly partisan, they could eliminate a Democrat’s district wholesale, and draw a new district near Raleigh or Charlotte more favorable to the GOP.

“The real challenge for the joint committee is exactly where they take those seats from,” McLennan said.

Overall, the state grew 18.5 percent between 2000 and 2010 to more than 9.5 million residents. As a result, the ideal size of districts will shift upward, leading to some districts getting larger and some smaller.

For example, the 1st Congressional District, now represented by Democrat G.K. Butterfield, is 13 percent under its ideal population, meaning lawmakers will need to expand its boundaries to pack in more voters.

In contrast, the 4th, 9th, and 13th congressional districts are 3 percent to 16 percent over their ideal populations. All three are in metropolitan regions.

McLennan said the end result is going to be a net loss for Democrats in how the congressional districts are rendered, with only one Republican — freshman Renee Ellmers of the 2nd Congressional District — being weakened by the process.

“By and large, a couple Democrats are going to find their districts less favorable after the redistricting, and Ellmers is probably the only Republican who could see her numbers shift slightly against her,” McLennan said.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.