Is this the year Lucy finally lets Charlie Brown kick the football? Charlie Brown thinks so. Lucy isn’t saying.
Last week and again on Thursday, bipartisan groups of influential legislators filed bills to overhaul the way North Carolina draws maps for congressional and legislative districts. This time!, they say, this time we really are going to get redistricting reform done.
We’re pessimistic. Legislators aren’t easily persuaded to give up their power to draw boundaries that almost guarantee their party will keep control of the state House and Senate and North Carolina’s congressional delegation.
But we give the advocates credit: They have good reason to be more optimistic than ever that they can change the system that has so heavily contributed to polarization in the state and nation.
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First, both sides are weary from the nonstop litigation on this issue. A North Carolina case challenging congressional districts is sitting at the U.S. Supreme Court, and Democrats are worried about how the court will rule. A case challenging legislative districts is on the N.C. Supreme Court docket, and Republicans fear the outcome there.
Second, neither party can be sure it’ll be in power when the new districts are drawn in 2021 following the 2020 census. Democrats broke through Republicans’ supermajority in November. Some Republicans fear they could lose one chamber outright in 2020, and Democrats are hopeful but far from certain. So both parties have incentive to “take out an insurance policy against catastrophic loss,” as conservative commentator John Hood told the Observer editorial board, and pass a redistricting bill that protects them if they’re in the minority.
Finally, and as importantly, advocates are raising money for substantial lobbying, and the business community seems to be getting on board. That’s a voice that might have some sway with the current Republican majorities. Art Pope, a prominent businessman who is influential with Republican leaders, spoke in favor of one of the proposals at its unveiling on Thursday.
The two bills have key differences. House Bill 69, filed last week and driven in part by Common Cause, creates an independent commission to draw the maps. It would have 11 members – four each from the two major political parties, plus three who are not members of either party. The maps couldn’t be designed to favor one party over the other, or to protect incumbents, and the commission would hold at least 21 public hearings around the state.
A similar bill passed the House in 2011 but died in the Senate. So the bill unveiled Thursday takes a different approach. It would have voters decide whether to change the process through a constitutional amendment. If voters approve, legislative staff would draw the maps in a transparent process and give no consideration to partisan data.
So why are we pessimistic? Sen. Phil Berger leads the Senate and almost always gets his way. Five times he co-sponsored bills to reform redistricting when he and fellow Republicans were out of power. Now he sees no need for change. He did not immediately comment to the Observer editorial board on where he stands on the newest proposals.
Maybe he’s considering it. Hood told us that he warned Democrats in 2009 that they should get on board because they could lose control of the legislature. Comfortable in their power, they didn’t listen and have been regretting it for a decade now. Maybe, just maybe, Berger and his lieutenants will learn from that history and let Charlie Brown kick the ball this time.