- Senate Bill 641 is one of several redistricting commission bills being considered in the General Assembly
- The bill would effectively gut the one-county requirement in the NC Constitution
- The final authority for redistricting would be a single “special master”, who could impose a map that both the redistricting commission and the General Assembly would be forced to accept
I wrote earlier this year about two bipartisan and relatively moderate redistricting proposals in the General Assembly. I wrote in the second article that “either would be preferable to a plan that locks the legislature out of the redistricting process entirely in the vain hope of making redistricting ‘nonpartisan.’”
It seems that vain hope springs eternal, because just such a bill has been referred to the NC House Committee on Redistricting. Senate Bill 641 would enshrine a redistricting commission in the NC Constitution and change the constitution’s rules for redistricting. Its primary sponsors are Ashton Wheeler Clemmons (D – Guilford), John Autry (D – Mecklenburg), Allison A. Dahle (D – Wake), and Charles Graham (D – Robeson). The redistricting proposal is one part of a bigger wish list of liberal changes to North Carolina’s elections contained in the bill, which has also been presented in the House as H574.
There are no Republicans among the House bill’s 17 sponsors, a sign that it has no chance of becoming law this session. Still, it does offer insight into what may happen if Democrats are able to win majorities in the General Assembly in the 2020 elections.
Repealing and replacing redistricting requirements
The first part of the bill deals with proposed changes to the NC Constitution, starting with moving responsibility for redistricting from the General Assembly to a “Citizens Redistricting Commission,” the details of which are laid out later in the bill.
The proposed constitutional amendment would also alter the requirements that the commission must fulfill when drawing districts. Here are the proposed changes for senate districts (house districts are equally affected):
First of all, the requirements would no longer be requirements under the proposed changes. The language in the North Carolina Constitution would be changed from “subject to the following requirements” to “to the extent possible, those districts meet the following goals.” This altered language is effectively a change from having rules to having guidelines. The only actual requirements under the proposed language would be that districts must be contiguous and that precincts must not be split except to comply with federal law.
The North Carolina Constitution currently has a whole county requirement. That language, combined with federal requirements that districts be roughly equal in population, means that whenever a county’s population is near the ideal population for a state legislative district (plus or minus five percent), that entire county much be represented by its own district. That requirement is an important element of maintaining communities of interest in districts since counties are the fundamental political unit in the state.
The bill would change that requirement with a “goal” of “minimizing the number of split counties, municipalities, and other communities of interest.” Not only is the language on not splitting counties weakened in the bill, not splitting cities or undefined “other communities of interest” is given equal weight.
Even the requirement that districts be roughly the same population is changed from a specific formula for finding the ideal district size to a vaguer, and more litigable, “goal of one person, one vote to ensure each voter’s vote.”
Who would be drawing the districts?
Whoever would be drawing the districts under the proposal would have considerably more discretion than the General Assembly currently has. So, who would those people be?
A “Citizens Redistricting Commission” would be enshrined in the NC Constitution. Former elected or appointed officials, former or current party officials, people who have ever donated at least $1,000 to a candidate (among others) are banned from serving on the commission. The idea would be to eliminate people who would have any kind of interest in the outcome of redistricting. Anyone who serves on the commission would be banned from registering as a lobbyist for five years after completing their service on the commission.
Any North Carolina citizen can apply to the state auditor’s office to serve on the commission. The leaders of the largest party in the General Assembly would pick four people from their party from the list while the leaders of the second largest party would pick four from their party. Functionally, this would mean that the Democrats and Republicans would recruit their four party members, have them apply to the auditor, and then officially pick them from the auditor’s list. Those first eight commissioners would then appoint one additional Democrat, one additional Republican, and five unaffiliated members by a vote of at least six of the eight current commissioners.
Any redistricting plans would have to be approved by at least three of the five members from each group (Democrats, Republicans, unaffiliated). If they fail to agree on a plan, a special master appointed by the commission (again by at least three votes from each group) would create a plan that the commission would be required to adopt. The bill does not list what, if any, additional restrictions would limit the special master in drawing districts.
Unlike earlier redistricting commission bills submitted this session, the matter would not go to the General Assembly if the commission could not complete its task. Instead, the process would start over again with the appointment of a new commission. This lack of a backstop increases the chance that districts could not be drawn in a timely manner, which in turn increases the chance of a judicial intervention.
The devil in the details
S641 also includes legislation related to the commission.
The legislation states “the ‘whole county’ requirements established by the North Carolina Constitution shall be complied with in a manner consistent with federal law.” However, as previously noted, the whole county requirement in the NC Constitution would be largely gutted, making that clause in the legislation moot. County borders would carry no more importance than municipality lines or “other communities of interest” in the redistricting process.
As with redistricting bills introduced earlier this session, data on party voting patterns and demographics could not be used when forming districts.
The requirement that any redistricting plan be approved by majorities of commissioners of both major parties and unaffiliated commissioners is a plus, as it would lessen the likelihood of a California-style manipulation of the process. However, disagreement on how to draw districts in the commission would put redistricting in the hands of the special master.
So, the commission’s most crucial vote would not be on adopting redistricting plans, but on the appointment of the special master. If either major party believed that the special master would be friendlier to their side, they would have an incentive to cause deadlock in the commission so that the special master could draft district maps alone. Knowing that, both sides would dig in on the special master appointment, making it unlikely that any special master would be chosen.
This obsession with a special master is not limited to S641. There are three other Democratic-sponsored redistricting bills in the General Assembly and all three include provisions for a special master.
For its gutting of the one-county requirement and the role of the special master in the process, S641 is the weakest of the redistricting proposals being considered in the General Assembly.