From Durham’s Betsy Crites, Member of Shared Journey, a bipartisan women’s group seeking mutual understanding and common ground:
The drama around North Carolina’s gerrymandered districts 1 and 12 is moving faster than an action movie. The stakes are high, the players are prominent, and the options are limited.
Should the decision-makers postpone the primary elections, or at least the U.S. Congressional part of the primaries, and thereby throw confusion into the voting process, or should they proceed using districts that have been declared unconstitutional?
As with many dramatic moments, the options faced at the height of a crisis are more limited and painful than those that were available earlier in the evolution of the problem.
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Ultimately, the resolution of this particular episode will come from the courts, but whatever the courts decide, the basic procedural dysfunction remains, namely how the voting districts are drawn in the first place. If we can free the process from the political party system, many problems will get resolved including fairness to minority populations and the voters in general.
North Carolinians have been through contentious gerrymandering episodes under both Democrats and Republicans. Sophisticated computer programs can grab a square block if necessary to benefit the majority party, only to have the resulting deformed districts dragged through court disputes for years.
The result, according to Common Cause, is that “90 percent of state legislative races will be decided by 10 percentage points or more, for all practical purposes making them noncompetitive.”
Both parties have at times tried to reform the system. Notably, Republican Rep. Paul Stam of Apex introduced redistricting reform back in 1989 when the Democrats were in power and has continued his support even with his party in the majority.
As Stam has said: “The idea is that in constructing districts, the people with the most at stake are probably the ones that shouldn’t be doing the details.”
Successful strategies have been tried in other states. For example, Iowa turns the process over to a nonpartisan commission made up of professional legislative staff.
A similar bill, HB 92, has been introduced in the N.C. House. HB 92 would establish a Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission whose members would be chosen by leaders of both parties. The good news is that HB 92 has 63 co-sponsors, a bi-partisan majority of the House. The bad news is that it remains stuck in the Elections Committee.
Bipartisan support for change is growing. The former Democratic Mayor of Raleigh, Tom Bradshaw, and the former Republican Mayor of Charlotte, Richard Vinroot, have led an effort supporting reform.
Bipartisanship on this issue is as much a practical as a principled matter. As the mayors put it, redistricting reform is “not only the right thing to do, it’s the politically smart thing to do because over the next few decades nothing is guaranteed.”
All this high drama, with the courts calling for districts to be redrawn only a few weeks before the primary, is suspenseful and gets our attention. Too much of this sort of “excitement,” unfortunately, is detrimental to the health our democracy.