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2020 vision: A better way to elect lawmakers

Something extraordinary is happening in Raleigh right now: Dozens of legislators – Democrats and Republicans alike – are volunteering to give up tremendous power, perhaps at the expense of their own political careers.

Here’s how politics has worked for generations in North Carolina (and most, but not all, other states): The party in control at the beginning of each decade redraws legislative and congressional districts to favor that party. Most of the districts are not competitive for one party or the other, and they remain in place for 10 years.

For decades, Democrats controlled the N.C. General Assembly and gerrymandered districts to help their cause. In 2010, Republicans seized control and did the same thing. That’s how North Carolina elected Republicans to nine of 13 congressional seats last November even though more people voted for Democrats than Republicans. And it’s how Republican N.C. legislators rolled to easy victory while Mitt Romney was edging President Obama by the thinnest of margins.

Now, a majority of the N.C. House wants to end that system. Sixty-one representatives – 40 Democrats and 21 Republicans – have signed on as sponsors of HB 606. The bill would fundamentally change how political districts are drawn. Instead of politicians mapping lines that benefit their party and themselves, the nonpartisan legislative staff would draw the lines. Most importantly, the staff would be required to draw compact districts, and would be forbidden from considering the political criteria that dominate the process now.

Here’s the key language in the bill: “No district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent legislator, or member of Congress, or other person or group…” The legislative staff shall not consider “political affiliations of registered voters; previous election results; demographic information, other than population head counts.”

In other words, all the things that legislators currently use to craft the districts just so.

This change could dramatically alter North Carolina’s politics. The current system is one of the main reasons Congress and the N.C. legislature are so polarized. Most districts are safe for Democrats or Republicans, so the officeholder has little incentive to reach across the aisle. In about 40 percent of N.C. legislative races in 2012, the winner faced no major-party opposition. Catawba College’s Michael Bitzer says 11 of 120 House seats and 3 of 50 Senate seats are toss-ups. That leaves millions of voters with little say in who represents them.

House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius deserves credit for backing HB 606 even though some of his fellow Republicans are skittish. A similar bill passed with Tillis’ support in 2011 by an 88-27 vote, and this one seems likely to pass the House with bipartisan support as well.

The real fight will be in the Senate, where the 2011 version died. Some senators want lawsuits over the 2011 redistricting settled before they monkey with the system. But current court challenges shouldn’t stop the state from improving the way we elect representatives nine years from now.

Republicans supported this idea when Democrats had power. Democrats support it now that Republicans have power. No one can know who will have power in 2021. Change the rules, render that question moot, and level the playing field for voters.

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