Redistricting public hearings fall short in accommodating public input, advocates say

By: - September 8, 2021 3:27 pm

Starting this evening, lawmakers will travel to 13 locations throughout the state to host public hearings on redistricting, which will redefine the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts for up to a decade to come, including a new, 14th congressional district. However, it appears that members of the public will not be able to participate and provide comments online.

The 13 meetings will take place at these locations:

A press release from Common Cause NC protested the lack of live-streaming options.

“The public’s voice matters in how new legislative and congressional maps are drawn in North Carolina,“ Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC said in a press release. ”As the COVID-19 virus ravages our state once again, it is disappointing that lawmakers are holding a series of public hearings on redistricting without an opportunity for community members to take part virtually in these meetings from the safety of their homes.”

Common Cause NC executive director Bob Phillips

Phillips told Policy Watch that while the time and location of some of the hearings are already less than ideal, the recent spike of COVID-19 cases poses extra challenges that warrant better streaming and virtual participation options. He noted that the hearing in Mecklenburg County is scheduled at 3 pm. Raleigh and Greensboro, the second and third largest cities in the state will not have a pre-map hearing.

Phillips recalled that in 2011, legislators used satellite technologies to let participants at simultaneous hearings on different sites view the proceedings in other locations and interact with each other.

“I don’t think Zoom and live streams and things like that, really, truly existed a decade ago,” Phillips said. “But there seemed to be more hearings on both the front end and the back end and more use of the technology of the times to provide as much access and transparency as possible, in contrast to what we’re seeing today.”

The public meetings this year will likely be recorded and posted online later. Phillips said, however, “That is a poor substitute for providing real-time live stream meetings with real-time virtual participation.”

To adopt maps before the start of the December candidate filing period for the 2022 elections, lawmakers have pledged to finalize the maps in November. This gives them roughly three months since the process commenced in August. However, the first public hearing is only set to take place a month after the initial legislative meeting. Legislators are expected release draft maps around the time public hearings conclude at the end of September.

Redistricting in 2011

Jennifer Bremer, a Chapel Hill resident tallied the number of redistricting hearings in 2011. Without a delay like the one that was precipitated by the 2020 census holdup, the 2011 redistricting process took more than four months from the end of March through the end of July with more than 60 hearings. Some hearings were held at the same time as those in other locations.

2011 Redistricting timeline, courtesy of Jennifer Bremer.

According to Bremer, the state legislature held hearings in 36 counties after the release of the initial proposed state Senate and congressional plans in 2011. Then, after the state House map was released, legislators took public comments on proposed maps at three rounds of hearings, with map revisions in between.

This year, however, chairs of the redistricting committees have indicated that they will only allow public comment at a post-map hearing at the General Assembly in Raleigh, without promising additional hearings elsewhere. Phillips says it’s “completely unacceptable” to only have a hearing in Raleigh.

In 2011,  Bremer said the post-map hearings were held in counties  that were spread across the state, including Buncombe, Cumberland, Guilford, Hertford, Jackson, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Nash, Pitt, Wake and Watauga.

Bremer said it’s imperative that legislators hold public meetings after the release of draft plans. Only then can residents reflect on the proposed maps and make concrete suggestions, she said.

How to make effective public comments

Throughout the redistricting process, members of the public can continue to submit comments to the legislative website through the public comment portal.

Bremer said it’s important to make specific comments. “In other words, like… don’t split Hickory, or we don’t like the fact that our county is divided this way versus that, as opposed to draw fair maps and don’t gerrymander… That just uses up time and accomplishes nothing,” she said.

Peter Miller, a researcher at the Brennan Center for Justice found in a study that public comments do win the attention of legislators and influence maps. This is especially true when multiple members of the public post similar comments that are specific. In a post that listed tips for submitting effective comments, he noted that “44 percent of public comments that expressed a view on how a specific location should be handled by map drawers were adopted in the final congressional maps.”

In addition, Miller also recommended: including giving executable instructions to map drawers, addressing small areas, defining communities and need for representation, using online mapping tools, summarizing main points and building neighborhood coalition.

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Yanqi Xu

Yanqi Xu, Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter, came to Policy Watch in December of 2020 from the Investigative Reporting Workshop in D.C., where she combined data and reporting to cover public accountability issues. Yanqi graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 2019. Her multimedia work appeared in PolitiFact and the Columbia Missourian, and was featured on the local NPR and NBC affiliates. Originally from China, Yanqi started her career producing newscasts to tell people what’s going on around the world.