The North Carolina redistricting charade

By: - October 5, 2021 6:00 am
Concerned citizens turned out at public hearings in recent weeks to ask for fair districts. (Photo: Screen grab from Durham redistricting hearing on September 15th.)

It’s hard to pinpoint the most maddening thing about the rushed, convoluted and opaque redistricting process that North Carolina Republican legislative leaders have been running in recent weeks, but there are several leading contenders.

First has been the disregard for the pandemic. When so much of modern life has moved online due to COVID-19, it’s ridiculous that the public was forced to attend crowded in-person hearings and prohibited from testifying remotely – especially given that online testimony was an option in 2011 when the technology was much more primitive. The creation of an online “portal” – think of it as a kind of glorified voicemail – was a poor and inadequate substitute.

Second is that the process is happening way too fast. In 2011, 60 public hearings were held over four months. This time, a dozen hearings were crammed into just three weeks. While the delayed 2020 census results were clearly a contributing factor, lawmakers had other and better options – including pushing back the 2022 election schedule.

Third were the in-person hearings themselves. Two of the state’s largest and most important cities – Raleigh and Greensboro – were excluded. And reports from other locales indicate that inconvenient timing (the event in Charlotte, for instance, took place in the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday) and poor public notice for the hearing locations — all took place on large college campuses — kept many from participating.

Fourth was the fact that comments had to be submitted in a kind of vacuum. Sure, a lot of good people showed up at the public hearings to speak, but for most, this was an exercise in voicing generalities or very specific demands about their home neighborhoods. Without concrete proposed maps to assess, critique or endorse, most comments could be easily ignored.

And then there is how the Republican lawmakers running the show have mastered the art of public double-talk. Former State Rep. David Lewis made an infamous admission a few years back that the only reason Republicans had drawn the congressional map to assure a 10-3 GOP advantage was because they couldn’t figure out how to draw one that would produce an 11-2 result. This time, it’s unlikely such a blunder will be repeated, but GOP legislators will still try to gerrymander the maps as much possible. In front of journalists or the public, however, they will offer empty platitudes about “transparency” and public “input” like the ones Rep. Destin Hall laid on a WTVD reporter a couple weeks back.

You’ll probably hear such talk again today in Raleigh as legislative redistricting committees reconvene, even though the agendas remain, predictably, a mystery.

All of which serves to highlight the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to the flawed 2021 redistricting process – namely, the utter hypocrisy of the people running it.

A decade ago, before they came to power, Republican politicians in North Carolina like then-Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, along with conservative “think tanks” like the John Locke Foundation, happily partnered with good government groups like Common Cause to champion the enactment of nonpartisan redistricting that would be overseen by an independent commission.

In the years since, however, those past stances have been repeatedly exposed as a disingenuous pose.

Any doubts in this realm were dispelled in 2013 and ’14 when, despite the presence of Republican legislative supermajorities and Locke Foundation patron and all-purpose GOP megadonor Art Pope (who had been installed at the right arm of the state’s governor), bills to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission weren’t given so much as a hearing at the Legislative Building.

Indeed, people paying attention could see where this was all heading as far back as late 2012 when it came to light that Pope was literally “in the room” when dark money-funded groups worked behind the scenes with Republican legislators and operatives to draw up the redistricting maps that led to the party’s sweep of state and federal legislative races in that year’s elections.

Today, Pope and the people he funds still like to project a pro-reform image.

Though no longer willing to support an independent commission, Pope still shows up at events to tout a watered-down “reform” scheme that would likely hand the duties off to legislative staff – staff that ultimately reports to the General Assembly’s Republican majority. Meanwhile, when pressed in debate, Locke staffers now echo their boss by mouthing the lame eye-roller of an argument that what’s really important in redistricting is not the group that oversees it, but the rules that are employed.

The bottom line: If there’s a seminal lesson we’ve learned about the leaders of the modern American political right – from Bush v. Gore to Mitch McConnell’s Supreme Court treachery to Donald Trump’s election lies – it is that they play hardball and to win at all times. The North Carolina redistricting charade is just the latest example.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.