This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

North Carolina legislators met Thursday to set the ground rules for the redistricting process in a bid to complete drawing new legislative maps in early November. At a joint session Thursday of the House Standing Committee on Redistricting and the Senate Standing Committee on Redistricting and Elections, Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, said the intent is to abide by state laws and allow the State Board of Elections to print ballots in advance of the filing period for the 2022 elections starting on Dec. 6.

With the necessary census data not scheduled to be released until August 12, the plan will leave legislators with limited time  to ensure the drawing of fair maps with public input and participation.

The redistricting data based on the 2020 decennial census will contain population counts in geographies as small as census blocks. The redrawing of congressional and legislative district lines is essential for the state to comply with a set of constitutional and Voting Rights Act requirements, including assuring that districts contain nearly equal population and the “one person, one vote” principle.

The committee opened a portal for public comment after the meeting. Hall said members of the public can make any comment related to the redistricting process, including the criteria, proposed district lines and the process.

Redistricting criteria

Unlike other states that vest the power in an independent commission or that allow a gubernatorial veto of maps crafted in the state legislature, North Carolina currently vests the sole authority for the redistricting process with the General Assembly.

Since the census data will be released in a hard-to-manipulate format, Erika Churchill, a legislative staff member, said it will take three weeks for staff to convert the data into a usable format to be loaded into the public redistricting terminals.

In the meantime, Hall said the House committee members will start proposing and debating the criteria for drawing district lines this year.

Hall said he expects proposed criteria to be debated as early next Monday, August 9. Then, the committee chairs will consider public comment starting at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday and the committee will vote on a final set of criteria for approval Thursday, he said.

Churchill said the staff will process the census data based on the criteria to be set by the legislators.

Public comment

Earlier this week, several voting rights groups sent a letter to leaders of the Senate and House redistricting committees urging them to start the process soon, to allow public comment before and after drawing of draft maps, and to increase transparency. The groups recommended the legislature release the user-friendly version of the data earlier and ensure public access to the broadcasting of the map-drawing process.

[Disclaimer: The North Carolina Justice Center, the parent organization of Policy Watch, signed on to the letter.]

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said at Thursday’s meeting that the letter raised some concerns and she plans to propose rules enhancing transparency. Harrison co-sponsored a bill this session —the Fair Maps Act— that would have established an independent redistricting commission, but GOP lawmakers never allowed it to be heard in committee.

The committees that met yesterday appear to be continuing transparency measures from a court-ordered process in 2019, which Hall said he’s comfortable with given what he described as the success of the process at that time.

“The 2019 process was the most — if not even arguable — but it was the most transparent process of redistricting and this state’s long history,” Hall said.

A 2019 court order mandated the redrawing of new legislative maps in public view after a three-judge panel found the Republican-majority legislature intentionally gerrymandered district maps to solidify their advantage.

At that time, members of the House and Senate redistricting committees used a lottery machine to select the base map and broadcast the process of legislators tweaking district lines on computers, as Policy Watch previously reported.

Another court ruling striking down the 2016 congressional map prompted legislators to redraw the congressional districts shortly afterwards in November 2019.

Map drawing

After the census data is processed, the legislature’s Information Services Division will allow lawmakers and members of the public to access the mapping software, Maptitude, Churchill said.

The judges prohibited the use of partisan data in map-drawing in the 2019 decision. The court files indicated that Thomas Hofeller, the late map maker and consultant hired by Republicans clearly used partisan data when he was drawing the legislative maps.

Churchill said the legislators will open two public terminals for themselves and the public to design their own maps. Members can schedule appointments to use the terminal. Members of the public can also generate maps using free software, such as DistrictR and Dave’s Redistricting, export the data, and import into the public terminals.

The documents created would become public documents, Churchill explained.

Draft plans, statistical data, shapefiles, and bills that propose new districts before the committee will be posted online, Churchill said.

Hall said the public has the opportunity to provide feedback on the draft maps too.

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