- There are two bills in the General Assembly that would create redistricting commissions
- Both would prohibit the use of data on partisan voting patterns while drafting maps
- One bill includes an amendment to the NC Constitution requiring nonpartisan redistricting
(NOTE: An earlier version of this article stated that H140 might be subject to lawsuits based on the Voting Rights Act due to its proposed exclusion of race as a factor in drawing districts. In fact, the bill includes an exception for compliance with federal law. The text in the article has been corrected.)
There is increasing momentum in the NC General Assembly towards creating a commission to draft legislative districts in a bid to decrease partisan gerrymanders.
I noted the filing of H69 on February 15. That bill would change NC law to create an eleven-member commission to propose legislative districts to the General Assembly. As if to up the ante, legislators in the NC House have also introduced H140, a bill to enshrine the principle of a redistricting commission into the North Carolina constitution. The bill’s primary sponsors are Chuck McGrady (R – Henderson), Robert T. Reives, II (D – Chatham, Durham), Sarah Stevens (R – Alleghany, Surry, Wilkes), and Jon Hardister (R – Guilford). Some of those names may seem familiar; McGrady, Reives, and Hardister are also primary sponsors of H69. It also has 62 other cosponsors so far.
Amending the North Carolina Constitution
The proposed constitutional amendment would create additional criteria by which congressional and state legislative districts must be drawn. The constitution requires that districts must be contiguous and that counties must not be divided. There are additional requirements, such as one-person-one-vote, imposed by US and NC law (which does cause some counties to be divided, despite the requirement that they not be). The expanded criteria start with things that would not be considered:
- Political affiliations of registered voters.
- Previous election results.
- Residential address of an incumbent or declared candidate.
- Demographic information, other than population head counts, except as required to comply with federal law.
- Any other data which could identify with reasonable certainty the voting tendencies of any group of citizens.
The basic idea is to remove demographics, especially race, and partisanship from consideration when drawing districts. To belabor that point, the proposed change to the state constitution includes a statement that explicitly prohibits districts with “the purpose of discriminating on the basis of race or political affiliation.” The only exception is the aforementioned requirement to comply with federal law, such as the Voting Rights Act.
So what criteria would be used? Those include respecting county lines (although not as strongly as they are in the current constitution), contiguousness, compactness, and equal population.
As with all constitutional amendments, these proposed changes must be approved in a referendum by North Carolina voters.
Comparing the commissions, H140 and H69
As with H69, H140 establishes a redistricting commission. However, the role played by the commission would be very different, as seen in the table below.
Under the H69 plan, the commission would be tasked with drawing districts and gaining public input through a series of at least 21 public hearings in different parts of North Carolina. The commission would then present its maps to the General Assembly, which must vote on the proposed maps without substantive amendments. If the General Assembly rejects the commission’s maps, the commission would submit a second set of maps that the legislature would again vote on without modifications. If the General Assembly rejects those maps as well, the commission would provide a third set of maps. Those maps would be subject to amendment, functionally returning the power to write legislative maps to the General Assembly. As with H140, data on partisan voting patterns would not be used in the process of drawing districts.
Under H140, maps would be drawn by the General Assembly’s Legislative Services Office. The commission would be relegated to an advisory role. It would provide the Legislative Services Office guidance on drawing maps if the Legislative Services Office asks for such guidance. Once the Legislative Services Office submits maps to the General Assembly, the commission would have two weeks to hold at least three hearings in different locations across the state and report information from those hearings to the General Assembly. If the General Assembly rejects the maps drawn by the Legislative Services Office, the office would submit a second set of maps. Those maps would be subject to amendment which would, as with H69, functionally return the power to write legislative maps to the General Assembly.
While both bills would take the task of drawing initial maps out of the hands of legislators, they both allow legislators final say in approving those maps. That is a recognition of the reality that drawing maps of legislative districts is an inherently political process. As such, 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.”