Democrats, advocates call for transparency as legislative redistricting committees meet, set schedule

By: - August 18, 2021 1:32 pm

Incorporating public input in the drawing of new congressional and legislative districts was at the forefront in the discussion at a joint meeting of the North Carolina House and Senate redistricting committees Wednesday. State legislators are deciding on public hearing schedules, after finalizing the redistricting criteria last week.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said that more 200 public comments have been submitted that urge lawmakers to adopt rules to advance transparency in the redistricting process.

To this end, Harrison introduced a series of transparency proposals before the committee that would, among other things, require:

  • the publication of data, draft maps, and public comments,
  • the disclosure state-funded consultants and counsel who participate in the redistricting process,
  • the enhancement of live streams for public viewing of the process,
  • the encouragement of public participation, and
  • publication of a written explanation justifying the selection of any maps that are ultimately considered.

Committee members will likely vote on the proposals next week.

Public hearings slated for 10 counties

The committees also released a tentative public hearing schedule for discussion.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican co-chairing the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, said these public hearings will be held mostly at universities. He noted that it is hard to organize and staff these meetings.

The committees proposed a schedule of public hearings that would take place in 10 counties during a four-week span between Sept. 6 and Sept. 30 — the date on which draft maps are scheduled to be released. The proposed hearings would take place in Caldwell in the week of Sept. 6, Jackson, Mecklenburg, Nash, Pasquotank and Pitt the week of Sept. 13, Durham and Forsyth the week of Sept. 20 and New Hanover and Robeson the week of Sept. 27.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, said there should be more public hearing sites in the Northeast and Northwest to accommodate those who may otherwise have difficulties traveling to Raleigh.

During the 2011 redistricting cycle, legislators held public hearings at more than 30 sites, though legislative staffer Erika Churchill said some were synchronized hearings at different places. Hise noted that those hearings were required under the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance clause under Section V, which is no longer in effect.

Call for more effective live broadcasting

A court-ordered redraw of legislative maps in 2019 marked the first time the General Assembly drew district maps in public view. However, Harrison told Policy Watch in an interview that there were technical difficulties, “I think the technology wasn’t quite there and so it was hard to hear people… They could have side conversations… They’re drawing maps around terminals, where the public couldn’t see or hear.”

Harrison proposed at the meeting that committee members should stop when audio and video feeds fail and resume only when they’re restored.

The 2019 process has been touted at previous meetings by Republican chairs as the most transparent ever, but they remained hard for members of the public to follow, said Lekha Shupeck, the state director of All on the Line, a grassroots campaign against gerrymandering founded by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Sen. Ralph Hise presides over a joint meeting of the Senate and House redistricting committees.

She explained that during the 2019 redraw, there were multiple live streams at the same time, making it unclear what individual legislators did on each computer.

“I think just in general, the talking point that 2019 was perfectly transparent is just not true,” Shupeck said.“There were many, many inadequacies with that process… There were many things about it that were not transparent, and there was pretty much no public input to speak of.”

Shupeck was one of the handful of attendees at a last-minute public hearing for the 2019 legislative map redraw on a weekday, she recalled.

Still uncertainties about public input after release of draft maps

Hise said the committees have not considered proposals for statewide public hearings after drawing draft plans, but pledged “plenty of opportunity” for public input. He said the public comment portal will remain open throughout the redistricting period.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, said it’s imperative to allow for public comment after the maps are drawn, “I don’t think just a typical public hearing at that point in this building would be sufficient.”

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