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Advocates renew push for nonpartisan districts

To Bob Phillips, the roots of the federal government shutdown lay not just with members of Congress, but also in the way they’re elected.

Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause in North Carolina, argues that partisan districts drawn by the party in power foster the kind of ideological divides that are playing out in Washington.

That’s why he and other members of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform are once again promoting the idea of nonpartisan redistricting. The coalition, which includes groups from the liberal NC Policy Watch to the conservative John Locke Foundation, plans to hold a forum Wednesday in Charlotte.

The 7 p.m. gathering at Caldwell Presbyterian Church, 1609 E. Fifth St., is one of a series the coalition is holding across the state to promote public awareness of the issue.

This year, legislators from both parties signed onto a House bill designed to take politics out of the redistricting process.

Modeled on a process in Iowa, it would essentially put redistricting in the hands of the legislative staff, which would draw districts on principles such as compactness and geographic logic.

A five-member commission appointed by legislative leaders would hold public hearings and report their findings to the legislature. The General Assembly would then vote for or against the plans.

The problem with the current system in North Carolina and most states, say critics, is that districts are drawn to be strongly for one party or the other. Among North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts, for example, just one – in the Wilmington area – is truly competitive.

“There are so many lawmakers right now who are insulated,” said Phillips.

Pat Sellers, a political scientist at Davidson College, says the current system makes members of Congress more responsive to one group of voters.

“I really have to think that there is a link between one party controlling the redistricting process and the degree of extremism and inflexibility of the members elected from those districts,” he said.

“When the … winners get to Washington, they face a different electoral challenge than members of more competitive or mixed districts. In the safe districts, the biggest challenger to the incumbent is not a moderate but somebody more extreme than (them) because the competition is no longer in the general election, it’s in the primary.”

To critics, the review isn’t geared toward Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. The current redistricting bill, currently in committee, has 61 co-sponsors in the 120-member N.C. House. An almost identical bill in 2011 passed 88-27 before stalling in the state Senate.

Sponsors of the current state House measure include conservative Republicans like Paul Stam of Wake County and liberal Democrats like Paul Luebke of Durham.

Becki Gray, a vice president of the Locke Foundation, says less partisan districts would be better for democracy.

“The more debate, the more discussion is on the table – what we end up with is a better result,” she says. “This is a good government, a representative government issue.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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