On Wednesday, the conservative Civitas Institute published an article denouncing efforts to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission—instead of letting self-interested lawmakers pick their own voters, as currently happens—as a “fantasy” pushed by leftists. The article, echoing comments from state Representative David Lewis, R-Harnett, argues that partisanship is baked into the very cake of redistricting and altering the process would dilute voters’ power. Better, they say, to hold the politicians responsible for drawing the maps accountable at the ballot box.
The fact is, redistricting is and always had been an inherently partisan process. The best way to deal with that fact is to ensure the process is transparently implemented by the elected officials charged with the responsibility by our state’s Constitution. They are the ones who the voters can hold accountable at the ballot box – not nameless, faceless bureaucrats.
On January 11, the first day of the 2017 legislative session, a cluster of organizations (almost all of them liberal or leftist) held a press conference at the State Legislative Building to renew their push for a non-partisan redistricting committee. Their real goal? Take the responsibility of drawing North Carolina’s congressional and legislative districts away from state’s legislators and hand the process over to the “nonpartisan” legislative bureaucracy. This is what progressives do: remove power from the people and give it to unelected “professionals” – because they supposedly know better.
Of course, it’s hard to hold those politicians responsible when they draw those maps in such a way that virtually all incumbents are reelected easily: in 2016, only two state representatives and one state senator lost their reelection bids. More important, those districts have served to ensure that Republicans have veto-proof majorities in both houses of the legislature despite a relatively even split in recent statewide popular votes. In fact, in 2016, Governor Cooper, a Democrat, received more cumulative votes than House Republicans and only eleven hundred fewer total votes than Senate Republicans, though they control more than two-thirds of their respective chambers. That’s what happens when politicians pick their voters rather than the other way around.
When this is done on a racial basis, it’s illegal. In August, a federal court ruled that 28 of the state’s 170 state legislative districts are were unconstitutionally gerrymandered, meaning they were drawn in a way that packs minority voters into a smaller number of districts, thereby diluting their voting power and making the neighboring districts whiter and, consequently, more Republican. A few months later, the court ordered the state legislature to draw new maps and then use them for special elections this year. A few weeks ago, however, the U.S. Supreme Court halted that order, at least for now.
But that decision hasn’t discouraged an initiative to give redistricting power to nonpartisan legislative staff rather than partisan legislators. “That independent staff would in turn be required to follow strict criteria when drawing congressional and legislative voting maps, such as keeping districts compact and following the federal Voting Rights Act,” the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform explained in a recent press release. “A similar proposal was approved by the NC House with bipartisan support in 2011, but did not receive a vote in the NC Senate. It was re-introduced in 2015 with a majority of House members co-sponsoring the measure, but the bill stalled in committee.”
On January 11, the official first day of the new legislative session, Coalition executive director Jane Pinsky and a handful of other organizations called on lawmakers to adopt a nonpartisan redistricting plan.
Despite Civitas’s dismissal of this effort as a leftist fantasy, at least group quoted in the Coalition’s press release does not exactly consist of kale-toting, sage-burning hippies. The John Locke Foundation, which, like Civitas, has been funded over the years by conservative moneyman Art Pope, is a self-described conservative foundation that believes in “in free markets, limited constitutional government, and personal responsibility.”
Mitch Kokai, a senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation, tells the INDY that, while “Civitas makes valid points,” legislators should not be in the business of drawing maps. “Redistricting cannot be divorced completely from partisan politics, since it deals with the partisan process of electing people to office. And it’s one hundred percent true that voters can overcome the problems created by gerrymandered districts. Witness North Carolina’s 2010 legislative elections. Voters were so fed up with Democrats in Raleigh and Washington that they gave Republicans huge victories in districts that were drawn by Democrats and designed to preserve Democratic power over the General Assembly. Still, our form of representative government is based on the key principle that voters must retain ultimate sovereignty. In other words, voters must choose their elected leaders, not the other way around. That’s why legislators should not be the ones who draw North Carolina’s election districts.”
That Civitas would take this position isn’t particularly surprising. Redrawing the state’s legislative maps and then holding special elections—as a federal court ordered the state to do last year, before the U.S. Supreme Court put a hold on the new elections—could threaten the Republican chokehold on the legislature, which could in turn threaten Civitas’s right-wing policy objectives.
But it is worth noting that this isn’t the position Civitas always had.
On January 30, 2009, in fact, Civitas reached the exact opposite conclusion, in a blog post titled “For a Redistricting Commission.” Noting a Winston-Salem Journal editorial on the subject, the unnamed author says “it’s a subject that needs to be discussed, but just isn’t as sexy as taxes or smoking or filling $2 billion budget holes. … We can hope that this will get some traction this session, but somehow I doubt it will happen. It would involve the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate thinking beyond protecting their own majorities and doing something in the best interest of the state.”
“When the Republicans were out of power, they championed the cause just like Civitas,” says Bob Phillips, executive director of the North Carolina chapter of Common Cause. “This idea has such merit it has been sponsored in the past by current Speaker Tim Moore [and] Senate president pro tem Phil Berger.”
Then again, Phillips notes, back when Democrats were in power—and had the ability to pass this legislation—and Civitas was championing nonpartisan redistricting, “Democrats were silent. Common Cause has been supportive of redistricting reform for thirty years.”