RALEIGH — Two House bills intended to reduce partisan manipulation of legislative redistricting could be acted on in the short session starting in April, though retiring Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, predicted the Senate would not approve either.
“In essence, there really isn’t a reason to do independent redistricting because the law is clearly defined. It tells you exactly what steps you take to draw the districts,” said Rucho, chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee. “Therefore it should remain with the legislature to make those decisions.”
He said lawmakers use, among other tools, the legislative guide to redistricting, “a cook book, and it’s all based on what the legal precedents have been,” make sure they comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, and conform to the Stephenson v. Bartlett state Supreme Court decision ordering mapmakers drawing legislative districts not to split counties when possible.
Rucho denies that political payback is assured when partisan control of the General Assembly switches from one political party to the other. “Absolutely not, because of the fact that you now have competitive districts in there,” Rucho said. “That’s what you want to have, where people get to vote for those who best represent their beliefs.”
He defined a competitive district as one comprising Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated voters in which, for example, a Republican could not win election without crossover voting from some Democrats and the support of independent voters.
He said congressional districts are a case in point.
“There is not one of the 13 districts that have a majority Republican [voter percentage]. They’re somewhere around 35, to 42, or 43 [percent], matched equally by Democrats,” Rucho said. The 10 Republicans had to attract voters outside their party “willing to say that person’s issues and beliefs are more in line with my interests.”
Those clamoring to remove redistricting power from the General Assembly “aren’t happy with the results,” Rucho said, and it has nothing to do with confusion over procedural mechanisms.
But fellow Republicans have been in the forefront of redistricting reform, and House Speaker Pro Tem Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, is the dean of the movement. He is a primary sponsor of House Bill 92, along with Reps. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and Grier Martin, D-Wake. The bipartisan bill has 59 other cosponsors.
The other measure is House Bill 49. Primary sponsors are state Reps. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, Julia Howard, R-Davie, Paul Tine, U-Dare, and Micky Michaux, D-Durham.
“This particular proposal we’ve been working on for 26 years,” Stam said of H.B. 92 on Nov. 11 at the Abe Holtzman Public Policy Forum at N.C. State University, where he and Martin appeared on a panel discussing gerrymandering.
The bill would empower the nonpartisan Legislative Services Office to draft a plan for the General Assembly to approve.
This is “not the thing that will create the promised land of politics,” Stam said, but he supports it because he doesn’t believe it is fair for a majority party to control the levers of power that enhance its own re-election prospects.
“Goofy looking maps will not be solved by a better process,” he cautioned, because some bizarre boundaries are drawn for personal reasons, not partisan purposes.
He gave an example of pulling six households into his district, one of which was his in-laws, who were getting old and feeble. It appeared Stam and his wife would have to move closer to take care of them. Because they lived outside his district, he could not move there and retain his House seat, so he brought them into his district.
While H.B. 92 is a nonpartisan proposal, “you will put a premium on certain people trying to figure out how to get as many partisans on the nonpartisan staff as possible. Have you thought about that?” Stam said.
A nonpartisan approach would not end electoral litigation, he said. “If you think you can program a computer to produce maps based on [every] Supreme Court [precedent] and you won’t have litigation, you’re wrong, because the U.S. Supreme Court constantly changes its mind on redistricting issues.”
Making compact, contiguous districts, and single-member districts where possible, is “not always the same as continuity of interested groups because people don’t live compactly and contiguously,” Stam said. So while Pender County filed a landmark lawsuit to be kept entirely in one legislative district, Apex prefers its three legislators, which gives it greater clout in legislative committees and votes on legislation, he said.
While the nonpartisan process is likely to create a few more competitive seats, “Campaigns will cost a whole lot more, and you’ll have to deal with that,” Stam said.
“A lot of different states have tried a lot of different methods with varying levels of success. The model that we’ve got is one way to do it,” Martin said.
“I think we need to get a read from the Senate as to what they want to do” before voting the bill out of the Committee on Elections, where it has been shelved since Feb. 18.
“I’d like to think we can still get [passage] from the House, but … we’ve got important legislation to deal with,” Martin said. “My guess is Speaker [Tim] Moore [R-Cleveland] is not going to want to deal with something difficult like redistricting reform legislation unless there are prospects for its passage in the Senate.”
He blamed GOP senators of playing political tit-for-tat with redistricting.
“They have said that Democrats have done it for 100 years … now it’s our turn,” Martin said.
“My concern is, though, if the Democrats take over again that we’re going to have the same mentality,” Martin said. “If I get back in the majority, I’m going to do my best to restrain those base impulses.”
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.