Politics & Government

NC House passes new maps, despite Democrat concerns about Eastern North Carolina

The North Carolina House of Representatives approved new political maps — drawn to replace the current unconstitutional maps — on Friday.

The vote was divided along party lines, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.

The N.C. Senate, which also has a Republican majority, does not plan to vote until Monday night on their own maps.

And it’s possible that the House maps aren’t done, either. The Senate could take steps to resolve some of the issues that led to the partisan divide in the House over those maps Monday, following a noon public hearing.

As the result of a recent court case, numerous clusters of House and Senate districts across the state were ruled to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

There were 14 in the N.C. House, and most of the solutions that legislators came up with throughout the past few days were uncontroversial. However there is one area of southeastern North Carolina, near the South Carolina border, where Democrats think Republicans drew with political purposes in mind, despite a court order telling them not to.

“You don’t have to be very astute to know what we are doing in this bill is partisan gerrymandering in the benefit of a member,” said Democratic Rep. Joe Sam Queen on Friday before voting against the maps.

Republicans say that claim is false. Republican Rep. Destin Hall was heavily involved in drawing the new districts, along with fellow lawmakers from both parties, and he strongly objected to that claim.

“This was something we stood in front of a computer and tried to draw, working together,” Hall said.

At issue is a cluster of House districts in Robeson, Columbus and Pender counties in the southeastern corner of the state. When the legislature randomly selected a so-called base map for those counties, that base map placed two Republican legislators into a single one of the new districts, leaving the other district without an incumbent representative.

HB 1020 Red Comm PCS.jpg
The proposed NC House map.

The court said that lawmakers are forbidden from using political data to redraw the maps, since they relied too heavily on political data in the past to advantage Republicans. But they’re not banned from protecting incumbents. So they changed the base map to separate those two Republican incumbents, Brenden Jones and Carson Smith.

Democratic Rep. Darren Jackson, the top Democrat in the House, said the GOP-supported map made more changes than necessary to fix the double-bunking of Jones and Smith. And part of those changes, he said, split up the towns of Whiteville and Chadbourn in Columbus County, which hadn’t been split in the base map.

That exact split does exist in the current maps, however, and Jackson said it is precisely what the judges identified as a prime example of unconstitutional gerrymandering in that area.

Jackson offered three different versions of new districts that did not separate the two towns. But Republicans shot all of them down for various reasons, such as for splitting up voting precincts — which Republicans said might actually violate the court order — or not protecting Jones and Smith from being double-bunked.

“I’m sure the court will strike it down,” Jackson said, after Republicans went with their version of the map instead of any of his substitutes.

But Republican Rep. Sarah Stevens, who was also involved in drawing the maps, criticized Jackson for even suggesting that anything fishy happened.

“For people here to say that we did a partisan gerrymander greatly offends me,” she said.

Fayetteville questions

A handful of other Democrats also objected to the new maps for Fayetteville, saying this process had taken a bad gerrymander and unintentionally made it worse.

Several Democratic representatives in Fayetteville had tried to tweak the new maps in committee, saying they had a problem with lopsided numbers of people from one district to another. But Republicans shot down those proposed changes, since nobody was double-bunked, and expressed suspicion over the true reason behind why the Democrats wanted to redraw the lines there.

Democrat Rep. Billy Richardson said he hadn’t looked at any political data, but he knows the area well enough to believe the new maps are an even worse gerrymander than they were when the court struck them down.

“I’m familiar with Cumberland County and the lay of the land,” he said. “I don’t have to look at the numbers to know ... in this particular case, trying to correct the wrong, they’ve made the wrong worse.”

His fellow Fayetteville Democrat, Rep. Elmer Floyd, also objected to their new map, saying “it does not pass the smell test.”

Transparency

Democrats had no other major objections to maps that were redrawn in other parts of the state, including Charlotte and Greensboro.

“I felt incredible taking part in it,” Durham Democratic Rep. Zack Hawkins said. “This is an unprecedented piece of transparency the General Assembly is undertaking.”

Some Democrats did object to issues of transparency, particularly regarding the ability of the public to make comments to the legislature. There has been a written public comment portal open for several days, but on Friday, after renewed criticisms of the process, Republican leaders scheduled an additional public hearing for Monday at noon at the legislative office building.

Republican Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, the top redistricting official, said more than 5,000 people tuned in to the legislature’s livestream of the map-making process, “done in full public view, down to the action of lines being moved on a computer screen.”

Lewis called the whole process “one of the best bipartisan things I’ve seen done here in a really, really, really long time.”

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.
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