Redistricting Can Change NC Politics
The next few weeks are an extremely important time to pay attention to the political news, because the balance of power in North Carolina could be shifting. Why? The state is taking a step away from gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is one of the most significant forces currently distorting our democracy, perhaps second only to the role of money in politics. It is, in short, what politicians do when they draw voting district lines to favor one group of voters over another.
After the North Carolina General Assembly drew new districts in 2011 as required by the Constitution, multiple lawsuits were filed arguing that the new districts were gerrymandered to diminish the power of African-American voters. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on two occasions that the current district maps are illegal. The General Assembly was compelled to draw new Congressional district maps prior to the 2016 elections, and now the General Assembly has been ordered to draw new legislative district maps before the 2018 election.
A funny thing happened with the Congressional maps. They were redrawn, but the balance of power remained exactly the same. See, it is illegal to gerrymander for racial purposes, but it is still legal to gerrymander for partisan benefit. (The Supreme Court will hear a landmark case on this issue in its next term.) So when the Republican-controlled General Assembly drew new maps for 2016, they openly said they were done to benefit their own party. Before and after the new maps were drawn, Republicans held 10 of North Carolina’s 13 seats in the House of Representatives. That gives the Republican Representatives 77% of our state’s voting power in the U.S. House even though they only won 54% of votes statewide in the last election.
The impact of this type of power imbalance is seen in the types of policies that a majority party puts in place. Although we are a very closely divided state politically, Republicans have used their gerrymandered supermajorities in the General Assembly to enact a very conservative agenda. HB2, banning Medicaid expansion, restrictions on women’s health care, and rollbacks of environmental protections are just a few of the things Republicans have done since they drew the maps in 2011.
The General Assembly is now under a court order to draw new legislative maps by September 1. The Republicans in the General Assembly can, and likely will, use their supermajority power to once again draw maps that have a serious partisan tilt. According to the North Carolina Constitution, the Governor cannot veto redistricting bills, so even having a Democratic Governor cannot stop them. However, the new maps will be subject to judicial review. If the court believes that the new maps are also illegal, it can order a “special master” to draw a final set of maps independently. If that happens, the ultimate maps likely will not be available until closer to the end of the year.
It will be hard for the Republicans to draw new maps that maintain the same level of partisan advantage as they have under the current maps. Across the state, a handful of legislative districts are sure to lean more Democratic after the change. But Republicans can draw maps that shore up some of their members, and they can eliminate some incumbent Democrats by drawing two members into one new district.
In Orange County, Senator Foushee’s district is not required to be redrawn, and will likely continue to include all of Orange and Chatham Counties. But, Rep. Insko and I will have our House Districts redrawn. Under the old maps, Orange and Durham Counties split five House seats, but the new maps will group Orange with Caswell County and only have two Representatives. We cannot be sure how they will divide the new districts.
If all of this has made you roll your eyes, I really feel the same. There has to be a better way, right?
Some states use an independent, non-partisan process that tries to prevent politicians from drawing their own districts and picking their own voters. I have co-sponsored a bill to move us into this type of system during each of my terms in the legislature. These bills have bi-partisan support, and Gov. Cooper also recently endorsed a non-partisan redistricting process. I believe that if the next two elections can balance out the power between political parties in the General Assembly, it is possible that we could agree on a plan for non-partisan redistricting for the next official process in 2021.
In the meantime, you can make your voice heard about the current redistricting. The General Assembly’s Redistricting Committees will be meeting over the next few weeks. They are taking public comment online and in some yet to be announced public forums. For more information, visit ncleg.net. I encourage you to speak up and let them know that voters are watching and that you want fair maps.
Graig Meyer is the State Representative for House District 50, covering portions of Orange and Durham Counties. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.