Congressional redistricting plans take shape despite objections from the public, advocates

By: - November 14, 2019 5:30 am
Jane Pinsky, Director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform

North Carolinians were presented with more than a dozen congressional maps by Tuesday night and had less than 24 hours to provide public comment about them Wednesday.

The overwhelming response was disapproval of the remedial redistricting process as a whole and sharp criticism about a lack of transparency and time for meaningful public input.

Lawmakers initiated the process after a three-judge panel enjoined them from using the 2016 congressional map, because of its determination that a lawsuit challenging it on grounds of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering would likely prevail.

A Joint Congressional Redistricting Committee spent the better part of the past week drawing new maps, and while it was live-streamed online, there were still questions about whether there were back-room consultations and complaints about how difficult it was for laypeople to follow what was being drawn.

“It was almost impossible to tell what was happening,” said Jane Pinsky, Director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

She followed the entire process in person, and she said Wednesday that she doesn’t believe it should pass court muster. She also expressed her view that the public hearing seemed disingenuous at best.

“It’s hard not to feel like they were waiting for the public – myself included – to hurry up and be done,” Pinsky said.

Between an online portal and the in-person public comment hearing Wednesday, lawmakers heard from thousands of constituents.

“I come as one, but I stand as 2,189,000, the approximate number of people who have been disenfranchised by the packing and stacking that has given our beloved state its infamy in being known as the national leader of gerrymandering and voter-suppression lawmaking,” said the Rev. Greg Drumright of Guilford County.

He said speaking out was “personal” because he was a graduate and former student body president at North Carolina’s A&T State University, a historically Black university, which was famously split as part of partisan gerrymandering efforts.

“This has affected the voice and choice from within our community,” he said. “I’m here to uplift a moral argument around communities of interest that are being pinpointed.”

Stefanie Mendell, a Raleigh City Council member who spoke in her personal capacity, told lawmakers that adopting fair and objective maps is imperative.

“Our constitutional right to vote and to have our votes mean something has been jeopardized for years by partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression tactics, special interest groups, dark money and negative and nasty campaigning, which has now trickled down to local municipal elections,” she said. “That is not how democracy is supposed to work in this country.”

Several speakers spoke about wanting to see a change in the redistricting process and told lawmakers about their values for mapmaking.

“North Carolina’s congressional districts have not only been racial and political gerrymanders, they’ve also drawn women out of office,” said Kamaria Lawrence, who drove to the hearing from Mecklenburg County. “Only two of North Carolina’s 15 senators and members of Congress are women, while over half of our voters are. A map that limits women to 13 percent of our congressional delegation should be unacceptable.”

She commented on three maps in particular, including Sen. Ben Clark’s (D-Cumberland) and Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield’s (D-Wilson) maps, which she said would create new districts where women could play a larger role in Congress.

The Hise map

Sen. Ralph Hise’s map, she added, has positives and negatives, but would create safe districts for female incumbents.

There were ultimately six redistricting bills, or six maps filed by House members Wednesday evening and seven bills/maps filed by Senate members.

The House Redistricting Committee is set to meet at 9 a.m. today, but the only bill on the agenda is one filed by Representatives David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Destin Hall (R-Caldwell) but widely referred to as “the Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus) map.” A Senate Redistricting Committee meeting has not yet been set.

Clark said in a phone interview Wednesday that the map he filed to be considered performs better than any of the others when it comes to traditional redistricting scoring. The population, he said, deviates slightly, but is legally compliant – and better than the deviation in a map from a legal case that dictates that rule.

The Clark map

“That is the best map out there,” he said.

Clark was hesitant to comment on how the congressional redistricting process was going because it is not yet complete.

Up through Wednesday, he said the “Democrats have been doing their thing and the Republicans have doing their thing” – whether there will be a bipartisan consensus remains to be seen.

Similarly, Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), who also served on the Joint Congressional Redistricting Committee, said she believed there was a lack of bipartisanship during the process, unlike the remedial legislative mapmaking sessions.

She also said she listened carefully to the public’s concerns and read through their comments, and she agreed with them.

“I appreciate the effort to be transparent – this is so much better than past processes,” Harrison said. “There is a way to make it more transparent and more available to the public.”

She is a proponent of a citizens’ redistricting process. She said she heard a lot of complaints about lawmakers who know too much about political geography, but it’s both understandable and a problem that some of the veteran folks “can’t divorce their brain from the political process.”

She credited Lewis for facilitating the redistricting process and for having good intentions for bipartisanship but said some of the maps repeat the problems the lawsuit challenges.

The Lewis map

“I’m with the public that we need an independent process, and it’s clear,” Harrison added.

Lewis, Hise, Newton and Farmer-Butterfield did not return an email Wednesday seeking comment about their maps.

It’s expected that each chamber will go through the committee process to choose a map before one is enacted, and although there is not a court or legislative-imposed deadline, lawmakers are running against the clock for congressional candidate filing, which begins Dec. 2.

[box title=”What North Carolinains are saying….” bg_color=”#508bbf” align=”left”]Thousands of people made online and in-person comments about the legislature’s congressional redistricting process. Below is a sampling of some of the online comments, which can be found in entirety here.

“You should let the public do this!!!” – Joshua Craddock

“Please create fair maps – without regard to incumbency and without splitting up cities. These look like the same map.” – Marcy Wofford

“I am extremely upset that Hise [and] whoever he’s talking to when he leaves the room to then immediately make specific changes upon return are constructing a somewhat less egregiously gerrymandered map instead of a fair map. That this is not done by a committee with open, public discussion of decisions in district shapes is unconscionable & will just lead to more challenges in court. STOP WASTING OUR TIME!” – Ashley Wilson

“Do not try and steal the election from North Carolina voters. Whole counties should be in the same congressional districts. No counties should be split.” – Chris Cain, online comment

“Please, let’s get fair maps done. We have been in national news too many times to keep this up. My Republican friends plan to bail on the party because of this type of behavior. Let’s put people first and do the right thing!” – Corliss McGinty

“I respectfully ask the committee to keep the counties bordering the Albemarle Sound in congressional District 3. These counties are coastal counties and have historically been aligned with the other coastal counties of North Carolina. Have the courage to stand up for the people of this area. Thank you.” – Joe Hollowell

“We need a process that will produce constitutional maps the first time and give citizens real input into the process. We want redistricting reform that will prevent gerrymandering, keep communities whole, and give citizens a voice in how their districts are drawn. We need a citizens’ commission that draws the maps and, ideally, approves them – voters not politicians should draw our districts.” – Pat Butler

“Given how partisan the legislature in drawing the maps in the past and getting elected from these illegally gerrymandered districts, I have ZERO faith and trust in especially current majority in coming up with a fair map. The redistricting should be done by a nonpartisan commission with inputs from citizens who are the SOLE STAKEHOLDERS in this process to make every vote count. That is the starter for democracy!!! There are many ways one can combine counties and divide as needed. This partisan body should RECUSE itself from any redistricting (combining and dividing counties) because they have conflict of interest!” – Ziya Gizlice[/box]

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Melissa Boughton

Melissa Boughton worked as the Courts and Law Reporter at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020.