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Redistricting legal, but not fair to voters

“Of the 170 seats in the N.C. General Assembly, only 10 percent – 17 seats – are considered competitive. Six are in the House, four in the Senate. The other 153 seats pretty much belong to incumbents who can count on re-election. Why? Because legislators draw those districts to favor one party or the other, with predictable results. Does anyone think such a rigged system fits the definition of a democracy? We don’t.”

Recognize that paragraph? It’s understandable if you don’t. Those words were written eight years ago in a Charlotte Observer editorial criticizing how N.C. lawmakers draw up House and Senate districts. Democrats were in charge in Raleigh then, and Republicans were unhappy with how districts were determined. So were we. “Unworkable,” our editorial said of the system. And: “Outdated.”

Now, eight years later, Republicans have the power in state government, and Democrats don’t like how they’re drawing up districts. On Monday, a three-judge panel weighed in, unanimously upholding legislative and congressional district boundaries that Republicans enacted in 2011. The Superior Court judges, in a 171-page decision, said the boundaries “do not impair the constitutional rights of the citizens of North Carolina.”

Legal doesn’t necessarily mean fair, however, and our opinion on redistricting remains the same: The process in North Carolina is flawed and time consuming. It allows the party in power to protect incumbents by drawing districts in a way that dilutes the opposition’s strength. It takes choices away from voters.

That’s what Republicans did in 2011 by packing minorities into a handful of districts – including Rep. Mel Watt’s 12th District – and making surrounding districts more white and friendly to GOP candidates. Republicans also split voting districts – and even split single counties into multiple voting districts – in order to give themselves an electoral advantage.

Again, the changes are legal, according to the Superior Court panel’s decision Monday. (Earlier, the Justice Department gave the new districts preclearance under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.) But just as Democrats did with their map drawing, Republicans helped themselves more than the citizens of North Carolina. Only 11 of 120 House seats and three of 50 Senate seats are toss-ups now, Catawba College’s Michael Bitzer said earlier this year. Millions of voters have little say about who represents them.

There’s a better way. A majority of the N.C. House – 40 Democrats and 21 Republicans – is sponsoring a bill that would give the responsibility of district drawing to nonpartisan legislative staff. House Bill 606 also would require that staff to draw compact districts and would forbid the consideration of political criteria in the redistricting process.

House Speaker Thom Tillis is admirably backing the bill, as he did a similar bill last year that passed the House before dying in the Senate. Tillis isn’t the only Republican who believes that even now, with their party in power, the system needs to be changed. Republican House leader Paul Stam supports HB606, just as he has supported similar bills since drawing up the first one back in 1989.

Last year’s bill was the first in recent memory to get out of committee. Tillis should try again and bring HB606 to a vote. The Senate should follow suit. As we said in our editorial way back when Democrats were in charge: “It’s long overdue.”

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