The highlight of today’s Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting public hearings came about forty minutes in, when state Representative Bill Brawley could be heard on the audio feed from Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte yelling at constituents.
A particularly eloquent speaker named Gene Millsaps had just wrapped up his comments urging members of the General Assembly to “restore proper citizen representation” to North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts. People applauded.
“I have already said there will be no shoutouts, there will be no demonstrations, this is not a sporting event,” Brawley screamed, clearly rattled, as Senator Bob Rucho, running the six-location video conference from the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, tried to drown Brawley out.
Brawley wasn’t the only one rattled, though; Republicans all over the state seem genuinely to believe that the 2016 primary election has been “thrown into chaos.”
Many speakers were upset that a federal panel of judges had found the 1st and 12th districts to have been racially gerrymandered, and that the court had ordered the lines to be redrawn by February 19. Then the judges denied a stay of their ruling, even though, as many people pointed out, a primary election is already underway and the state Board of Elections has already received some seven thousand absentee ballots. Then Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on Saturday, ostensibly ruining the state’s chances of getting the stay it had asked for, as the court will likely divide 4-4 along ideological lines. (If there’s a tie, the lower court’s decision stands).
“This whole stink smells a lot like judicial disenfranchisement intended to bully North Carolina into postponing its election and redrawing the districts,” Jay DeLancy, the director of the “nonpartisan” Voter Integrity Project, told committee members. “Don’t buckle to this judicial tyranny. Your position will be vindicated.”
But lawmakers probably won’t have a choice. And, despite blaming Democrats for decades of gerrymandering, some speakers who don’t agree with the court’s decision at least offered thoughts on what they would like to see if the districts must be redrawn: keep counties—especially rural counties—and precincts whole, and keep counties aligned with their current congressional districts as much as possible.
Oh yeah, and redraw the districts along partisan, rather than racial, lines. Which is apparently kosher.
“The districts were drawn fair and legal, but this committee has to prepare for new districts being drawn,” said state GOP chair Dallas Woodhouse. “The party’s position is, the courts hold that partisan voting behavior may be taken into account.”
Those who support redrawing the maps, however, suggested that the legislature appoint an independent commission to handle the process.
“I was disappointed when I found out that North Carolina ties with Maryland as being the most gerrymandered state in the U.S.,” said Raleigh speaker J.C. Wright, referencing a report by The Washington Post. “When you get so involved in playing the Republican-versus-Democrat political game, the people who lose are voters and citizens. … Nonpartisan redistricting would benefit the citizens.”
And some speakers showed little sympathy for the lawmakers, like Rucho and Representative David Lewis, who drew the districts in the first place.
“Elections have consequences, and so do U.S. District Court rulings,” said Asheville speaker Thomas Keith Thompson. “You need to comply with this decision and quit pretending it does not exist. The lines of districts should allow and encourage representation; they should not be a shopping expedition for elected officials to control the people. You have created chaos by the way you originally drew these lines.”
The Rev. Dr. Earl Johnson of Raleigh summed up what’s harmful about race-based gerrymandering (beyond the fact that it’s illegal). “More than partisan politics, it segregates African-American voters, rather than building them into fabric of North Carolina,” he said. “When you segregate the electorate by race, you change the politics of the state for the worse. Packing black voters into [districts 1 and 12] was the primary goal of the [2011 redistricting] plan. Race was most important factor in the creation of these districts, and it moves us back to a day of segregation most of us thought we had already moved away from.”
And then there were the folks who criticized the lawmakers on the committee for holding these public hearings on a day where there’s ice all over the roads, without ample notification and without presenting any draft maps to receive public comment on.
“How do we know you won’t produce the same kind of crazy maps again?” asked Gary Grant, speaking at Halifax Community College. “I am trying to figure out what rural eastern North Carolina has in common with the urban areas of Durham other than the fact that we are majority black. What you are doing is not legislative leadership. I consider the hearings a joke; they make no sense, and we will still be in the dark once the hearings are over.”
It’s hard to believe lawmakers on the joint committee haven’t at least started redrawing the district maps, though the official line is that they’ll begin working on them Tuesday and Wednesday. And as Grant and a few other speakers noted, lawmakers held the same kind of hearings before drawing district maps in 2011, and, uh, look where that got us.
By the end of the week, the legislature is very likely going to have to have done something. If it means Republicans won’t be safe bets for some state and congressional seats this election year, because the voting power of thousands of African-Americans has been restored, that will be neither unfair nor unfortunate.
“Redraw the district lines and do the right thing,” Grant said. “It’s a mess that you made. You need to clean it up.”