Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, along with other bipartisan sponsors, recently introduced a bill that would place on the ballot in March 2020 an amendment to the state constitution establishing a nonpartisan redistricting process.
If the bill, called the Fairness and Integrity in Redistricting or FAIR Act, passes and voters approve the amendment, it will surely be the most important legislation McGrady or any of its co-sponsors ever introduce.
Getting the amendment on the ballot will be an uphill battle, given that the Republican leaders of both the House and Senate say they don’t see a need to change the way things are done now, but the impressive and bipartisan group of North Carolina leaders behind McGrady’s bill suggests a consensus is forming that will be hard to buck.
The proposed amendment resulted from the work of a group called North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform (NC4RR), co-chaired by McGrady and former UNC System President Tom Ross. NC4RR is supported by all of North Carolina’s living governors and former chief justices along with an impressive list of other business and political leaders that includes Art Pope, an influential Republican who co-founded the John Locke Foundation.
More importantly, polling indicates that reform has the backing of a majority of North Carolinians. A 2018 poll by Public Policy Polling found that 59 percent of respondents supported changing North Carolina law so that districts are drawn in a non-partisan fashion. Only 15 percent were opposed, with another 27 percent unsure.
The proposed amendment would establish redistricting standards that would have to be followed whether lawmakers, staff or an independent commission redrew district maps after each decennial census. Any partisan political consideration would be prohibited. No use could be made of data that could identify the “voting tendencies of any group of people.” The amendment would require that districts be drawn to be compact and contiguous, keeping whole counties together in the same district to the extent possible. It would require that the process be transparent and that the methods and data used be made public. And it would require a public hearing before the new districts were approved by the General Assembly.
As it stands now, whichever party holds the majority in the year after the census is completed is free to manipulate districts to protect their party’s power, depriving voters of choice. The practice results in endless court challenges and court orders that maps be redrawn, costing voters millions of dollars. Since 1980, courts have had to intervene as a result of more than 40 challenges to NC redistricting maps, according to the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. That leaves voters dismayed and sometimes unsure even which district they’re in. It creates a huge disincentive to vote when you know that your district is drawn in such a way that only one candidate has any chance of winning. It promotes polarization and it cheats voters of government that is truly representative.
Gerrymandering is a blatant and unrepentant power grab by the majority party. Whether it’s legal or not (something the U.S. Supreme Court has been reluctant to decide), it’s a cynical and increasingly outrageous corruption of the democratic process. Going back to 1992, about half of legislative races in North Carolina have had only one candidate on the ballot. In the 2016 campaign, about one-third of the 170 N.C. House and Senate seats were essentially decided by the filing deadline, giving voters no choice. It is under authoritarian governments, not democratic ones, where voters have only one choice – the one dictated by the regime in charge.
Partisan gerrymandering is not new, but new technology allows map-drawers to target voters with pinpoint accuracy and to design districts to virtually guarantee that a given party will prevail. Even though Democrats got 48.35 percent of the 2018 Congressional vote, they elected only 3 representatives. With 50.39 percent, barely more than half, Republicans elected 10.
House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger are among Republicans who co-sponsored redistricting reform legislation during the 2000s when they were in the minority, but now say they don’t see a need for it. Even if they lack the statesmanship to do the right thing, if they fail to support the FAIR Act, in a state that’s almost evenly divided politically and where the demographics are changing, they may come to regret a missed opportunity to protect their own long-term interests.
But it’s the voters’ interest they should be concerned about protecting. This bill is about wresting the power to choose their representatives away from manipulative and power-hoarding lawmakers and returning it to the voters. Whether they are registered independent, Republican or Democratic, voters should demand that the process be a fair one where one-person, one-vote means something.
If serving the state’s rather than their own interests is lawmakers’ first priority, they will put this proposed amendment on the ballot. We should flood their offices with mail, email and phone calls demanding that they do so.
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