Opinion: CJ News Service

As N.C. map drawing begins, Virginia joins other states in redistricting reform implosion

Non-partisan redistricting commissions are failing across the country

The House and Senate redistricting committees meet in a joint session. (Image from YouTube)
The House and Senate redistricting committees meet in a joint session. (Image from YouTube)

At each of North Carolina’s recent public hearings on redistricting, some individuals and public policy groups spoke of their desire for an independent redistricting commission, a citizen’s redistricting commission, or some variation thereof.

Looking at the current massive failures of such efforts in other states, the General Assembly has wisely concluded redistricting is a legislative function as provided by the state Constitution. These solemn and constitutionally required duties are for elected legislators, not for a group of mythical non-partisan, not politically invested citizens who can somehow be appointed and put all politics aside to create fictional “ideal” maps that all think fair.

Our elected legislators have said mermaids and unicorns can’t draw district lines, either. Below are the ruins of similar attempts at a redistricting commission, starting with Virginia, which the Wall Street Journal says is the latest failure.

“Both parties are focused on voting rules, but the biggest election-policy story going into 2022 may be the spectacular underperformance of the “independent” redistricting movement,” WSJ reported.

Virginia

Virginia’s bipartisan redistricting commission could give up on trying to redraw the state’s legislative districts after intense partisan bickering that showed few signs of letting up during a virtual meeting Monday. The commission missed Sunday’s deadline for turning in maps for Virginia’s 100 House districts and 40 Senate seats. State law gives the commission 14 days after “its initial failure to submit a plan to the General Assembly.” But some members, including Democratic citizen co-chair Greta Harris, have already suggested the maps will be drawn by Virginia’s Supreme Court. It serves as a backstop if all else fails.

“The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s first-ever attempt to draw fair political maps collapsed in spectacular fashion Friday, when frustrated Democrats walked out of a meeting after Republicans rebuffed their suggestions for reaching a compromise,” according to the Virginia Mercury. “The commission, which has been holding regular meetings for more than a month, never came close to reaching an agreement on final General Assembly maps. Partisanship dominated the process from the start, with the commission hiring two teams of overtly partisan consultants and repeatedly failing to agree on how to merge two sets of maps”

According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, it isn’t just partisan considerations imploding the Virginian “independent”  redistricting process. In a twist, both GOP and Democrat proposed maps are said to dilute minority voting power.

“An analysis from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project of the initial proposed maps found Wednesday that the House of Delegates maps proposed by Democrat and Republican staffers working for the commission would reduce the number of districts where minority voters have the power to sway the outcome,” the paper reported. “The group found that currently, there are 21 districts where voters from a minority group make up at least 30% of a district, the general threshold Princeton academics believe would lead to that community being able to elect a candidate of their choice. The initial maps the commission members are considering would create 20 and 17 such districts.”

Illinois

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in 2018 he would insist the 2021 maps be drawn by an independent commission. When the Democrats who control the Legislature chafed at the idea, Pritzker walked back the promise in April. In September, he approved the Illinois legislature’s aggressive partisan gerrymander, according to WSJ.

New York

This year marks the first time in a century New York Democrats have total control of state government, giving them autonomy over redistricting if they choose to take it.

According to the Washington Post, in 2014, voters approved a constitutional amendment to set up a 10-member commission equally along partisan lines. Of them, eight were appointed by partisan legislative leaders, which critics point to as evidence that it was set up to fail and ultimately give the legislature final say over the maps. Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul is planning to help Democrats maximize the party’s gains in a way critics of her predecessor say he never did.

“Yes, I am also the leader of the New York State Democratic Party. I embrace that,” Hochul told The New York Times in August when asked whether she would use redistricting to help the Democrats hold the U.S. House. Democrats are already planning to draw the maps if the commission fails.

Utah

It is not just in Democrat-controlled states where redistricting reform efforts are blowing up. In deep-red Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reported:

“It took years of effort, millions of dollars and ultimately the voice of voters passing Proposition 4 in 2018 to create Utah’s first-ever independent redistricting commission.

“Now, even its early stages, there’s concern tight financial constraints might make it difficult, if not impossible, for the commission to fulfill its mandate, making it even easier for the Legislature to ignore the recommendations of the commission that Republican lawmakers opposed, but the public demanded be created.”

Even if the Utah commission were to present a series of maps for consideration by the deadline, the legislature and governor are free to ignore them.

Ohio

Already in Ohio, three different redistricting lawsuits are under review at the state Supreme Court, despite the a commission’s efforts.

“In Ohio, where nearly three-quarters of voters approved a 2018 ballot measure to end partisan gerrymandering, a new redistricting commission failed to gain the required bipartisan approval for its state legislative maps. As a result, those maps will now only be in place for four years, including national elections in 2022 and 2024, rather than 10,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor.

North Carolina

N.C. House and Senate committees officially adopted criteria for drawing legislative and congressional districts for the next decade. The committees voted during a joint meeting Aug. 12. The criteria forbid the use of partisan or election-results data to draw new district boundaries. That’s a departure from previous redistricting under both Democrats and Republicans, in which partisan data played a key role.

The John Locke Foundation, the parent company of Carolina Journal, continues to support offering voters a chance to enshrine redistricting principles in the state constitution.

At a recent Duke University symposium on redistricting John Locke Foundation Board Chairman John Hood argued that removing all political considerations from redistricting is impossible. However, adopting traditional redistricting criteria that focus on compact, congruent districts that keeps as many counties whole as possible while complying with the voting rights act and maintaining equal population, and putting the criteria in the state constitution, can curb the excess of extreme partisan map-making. To do so the General Assembly would have to prepare an amendment that not only list the criteria, but ranks the criteria in order of importance.  The public would then have to decide whether to approve the amendment or not.

Some have suggested a citizens advisory panel could help manage the public hearing portion of the process, but not be involved map-drawing, and that might be worthwhile.

Getting 3/5th’s of the  General Assembly to agree that compactness is more important than competitiveness, that racial and political data can never play a factor, and that respecting county lines is more important than city boundaries, would be a tall order. However, it may be a modest, reasonable, durable, and achievable reform. North Carolina need not join a long list of states with failed redistricting commissions to do it.