People don’t like gerrymandering. They want “fair” election maps. And those two statements represent the limit of most people’s thoughts about North Carolina’s redistricting process.
Few people care about the nuts and bolts of election mapmaking. That disinterest poses at least two kinds of problem.
The first plagues mapmakers. Those charged with drawing new election maps get little public guidance about special factors to keep in mind. When people tell them to “be fair” and “don’t do sneaky, bad things,” that tells mapmakers nothing about how and where to set election district boundary lines.
The second problem affects many redistricting activists. They would like to invoke the public’s general interest in fair elections to help bolster their own partisan electoral goals. But if most people don’t care enough about redistricting to delve into process details, it’s more difficult for partisans to use them as pawns.
A recent Twitter thread highlighted the latter problem.
Lekha Shupeck’s Twitter bio doesn’t mention it, but she’s state director for All On The Line. That’s a left-of-center activist group tied directly to former Obama-era U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
The former AG serves as point man for the Democratic Party’s efforts to skew new election maps to Democrats’ advantage. Holder’s efforts now will lead to a series of lawsuits later. He’ll challenge election maps drawn by Republican legislatures nationwide.
On Sept. 14, as N.C. lawmakers conducted public redistricting hearings in Winston-Salem and Elizabeth City, Shupeck turned to Twitter with a complaint.
“Y’all one thing I have to say — I am concerned that people are not making effective comments at public hearings — that they’re making comments that can be easily ignored by the redistricting committee.”
In a series of more than a dozen tweets, Shupeck expanded on her concern about the absence of “effective” comments.
“If you show up and talk about wanting an independent commission, or say you want fair maps without saying what that means in a very granular and specific way, you are giving the committee license to ignore you.”
“I know we’re all frustrated,” she added. “We live in a state that is and has been egregiously gerrymandered for a very long time. We’re experiencing a process that isn’t fair or equitable or accessible. We want to vent!”
“But when so few opportunities are given to us to even participate in the process, sure as hell I want everyone to be using those opportunities in a way that is effective not just now but over the long term,” Shupeck wrote. “And that means making a very different kind of public comment than the vast majority of people are making at these hearings.”
To help people craft this “very different kind” of comment, Shupeck recommended that people attend All On The Line’s public testimony training sessions.
“I’m not doing this (just) to self-promote y’all,” she wrote. “A lot of other orgs in this state have good testimony trainings that teach you to give geographically specific comments. The important thing is that you learn that skill, wherever you learn it, and deploy it effectively.”
“Please! I’m begging you! Save me from the curse of seeing good, passionate people not using their limited time and opportunities effectively.”
The tweets highlighted a key problem for Shupeck and her colleagues within the activist left.
Most people don’t care about redistricting in a “very granular and specific way.” Ask them how their demands for fairness would affect the mapmaking process, and few would be able to offer a coherent response.
It’s not clear that partisan “public testimony training” would help. It’s much more likely that the All On The Line sessions simply teach people to “parrot their canned talking points,” as Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, suggested in a news release responding to Shupeck’s tweets.
Hise co-chairs the state Senate’s redistricting committee. His release reminded people about Shupeck and Holder’s ultimate objective. “Their goal, in their own words, is to get comments into the record because they can ‘be impactful during any future litigation.’”
“Think about that: In preparation for Eric Holder’s redistricting lawsuit, he’s funding training sessions to get plants to deliver public comments that he thinks will help him win,” Hise said. “He’s sandbagging the process as part of a legal strategy.”
The senator offered advice to Holder and his state-level operative. “Here’s an idea: Stop trying to sandbag the process,” Hise wrote. “Let people say what they wish.”
You don’t have to know much about redistricting to know what most people want to say. “Draw fair maps.” “Don’t create crazy-looking districts that make no sense.” “Let the public watch and participate in the process.”
Those comments won’t help Holder and the Democratic Party win any lawsuits. But they do reflect most North Carolinians’ real — but limited — interest in redistricting.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.