Politics & Government

Redistricting bills face Senate resistance

Lawmakers from both parties Tuesday renewed their effort to take politics out of one of their most politically charged jobs – redistricting.

And advocates say they’re optimistic despite the continued opposition of leaders in the state Senate, where earlier efforts have died.

“Realistically it’s an uphill battle,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. “We hope that the legislators will … not remain confident that just because they’re in charge now or just because they were in charge 10 years ago that they’re going to be in charge in 2020.”

Legislative and congressional districts currently are drawn every 10 years by legislators. As a result, critics say those districts typically favor the party in power, result in less competition and therefore fewer moderates who have to answer to a broader constituency.

Last year nearly half of the state’s 170 legislative seats were uncontested.

More than two dozen supporters of independent redistricting heard lawmakers outline two proposals Tuesday. Either would make North Carolina the 22nd state with some kind of independent redistricting.

One bill, sponsored by Republican and Democratic House members, is modeled on an Iowa plan that lets lawmakers vote on redistricting plans drafted by legislative staffers. It would take effect for the next redistricting after the 2020 census.

Another, sponsored by Republican Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville and Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte, would rely on an appointed nine-member commission. It would take effect after the 2030 census.

“For decades, both Democrats and Republicans have been equally unwilling to change our current system,” Jeter and Jackson wrote in an op-ed for the Observer. “We believe that this is the moment for a bipartisan solution to a bipartisan problem.”

Looking ahead

The other bill is similar to a 2011 measure that passed the House with overwhelming support, only to die in the Senate. Asked what would prevent the current proposal from having the same fate, sponsor Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican, said, “Times change.”

“Here’s what’s changed,” he added. “We were still in litigation about the maps. … The litigation is over.”

In December the N.C. Supreme Court upheld legislative and congressional districts drawn by Republicans in 2011. Several groups had challenged the districts saying they were drawn to, among other things, dilute the African-American vote.

The bill by Jeter and Jackson would create a commission appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and chief justice of the state Supreme Court. While it calls for a constitutional amendment to be voted on in 2016, the commission itself would not draw districts until 2031.

Jeter called the longer time frame “a unique twist” that he hopes makes it more acceptable to critics. He expects few of today’s lawmakers to be running for election in 16 years. “It’s about getting the bill passed,” he said.

The idea of independent redistricting has been around for a long time. Stam first introduced a bill 26 years ago. Democrats never did approve a bill when they were in power. Republicans got a bipartisan bill though the House in 2011.

‘It’s dead’

Advocates point to the fact that current House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, sponsored redistricting legislation four times. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger sponsored such measures five times.

That doesn’t mean the Senate will embrace it now.

“God bless ’em, I can’t wait to get it over here,” Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca of Henderson County told WRAL. “It’s dead. It’s not going anywhere.”

And last week Berger told the Associated Press that he hasn’t seen an independent redistricting commission “that is truly independent.” Senate Redistricting Chair Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, said a series of court decisions has created rules for redistricting that make any independent effort “unnecessary.”

“The Supreme Court made it clear how to draw these maps,” Rucho said Tuesday. “It eliminates the gerrymandering that they’re talking about.”

But supporters of nonpartisan redistricting boast a range of allies. On Tuesday conservative John Hood, president of the John W. Pope Foundation, and Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch, both spoke on behalf of reform.

“This not all that complicated,” Fitzsimon said. “The idea is to create a system where voters choose their politicians rather than the other way around.”