After the November election, state Republicans not only secured the keys to the General Assembly for the first time in a century, but they may have locked down the next decade of political power.

Already there is a hitch: While in the minority, Republicans called for an independent redistricting commission; now in the majority, they are backpedaling on that stance. GOP leaders say a Senate panel of 10 Republicans and five Democrats will lead the redrawing of districts for N.C. House, Senate and Congress. There will also be a House panel, but its membership hasn’t been announced.

“This is the time when the politicians get to choose their voters, and it’s an enormously powerful tool they have to secure their destiny and partisan control,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy N.C. “So, in a way, the 2010 election really was an election of the decade.”

Legislators are required to re-evaluate district lines every 10 years, when fresh census data is collected. In addition to balancing the budget, redistricting may be one of the Legislature’s most important tasks of the session.

Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, will lead the Senate Redistricting Committee. He said the process will be “fair and legal,” and he aims for compact districts that don’t look like squiggles or snakes.

“We’ve always been concerned that maps tend to be gerrymandered, and what we are going to do is be overly focused on the legal criteria and be sure that people get a chance to choose their legislators and not the other way around,” Rucho said. “This is the first time that Republicans have ever drawn the maps, and we want to set a new standard. We’re going to show you how to draw them. This is our opportunity.”

Michael Crowell, a professor in UNC’s School of Government who has served as legal consultant for local redistricting proposals, moderated a panel at Duke University School of Law last year that posed the question, “Is there a way to design an apolitical redistricting process?”

His answer: No.

“Redistricting is inherently political, and in most any method of redistricting there is going to be some level of politics,” he said. “It’s just the question of the level.”

On those grounds, Republicans harped for years about the need for an independent redistricting commission. “There is something fundamentally abhorrent to our system when politicians can get in the backroom and calculate by moving these lines along how to maintain their voters,” Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said at a 2009 press conference where Republicans pushed for a commission.

“I don’t know of any one more important issue that needs to be addressed,” Rep. William Current, R-Gaston, said at the same event.

Now in charge, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, say there isn’t enough time to create an independent commission.

Orange County Democrat Ellie Kinnaird previously introduced legislation to create an independent commission and said she plans to reintroduce a bill this session. She balked at the notion that there wasn’t enough time to appoint a commission.

“It could be done quite quickly; there’s no reason it couldn’t be done,” she said. “All you have to do is put in the bill who is appointing the commission and then it’s just appointed. It’s a good excuse, but everybody has an excuse.”

Public Policy Polling found in November that 49 percent of N.C. voters support an independent commission, compared to 21 percent who favor the existing process. Addressing the time constraints, 40 percent said they would support a special session on redistricting, while 27 percent were opposed.

“I think this is one of the rare issues where there is bipartisan support,” Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, said.

But because it would require a party in power to cede redistricting control, many, Jensen included, don’t anticipate an independent commission would be created.

“I think that ultimately there will be no change to how we draw the lines, and once the lines are drawn, then people won’t think about it for 10 years, and then in 2020 whatever party is out of power will start pushing for an independent commission again,” Jensen said.

Here are some primary requirements the redistricting panels will need to meet:

  • The federal Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 and reauthorized in 2006, requires that minority communities not be split, to avoid the historic practice of fracturing African-American districts and thus diluting their voting power. In North Carolina, 40 counties, including Guilford, Person and Granville, require federal approval to make any changes, because of a history of voting discrimination.
  • The Supreme Court established that the Voting Rights Act takes precedence above other redistricting considerations. The state’s Whole County Provision requires that counties stay together as one district wherever possible.
  • All 13 congressional districts must have the roughly the same population. In the state Senate, 190,000 people per district is the target. In the House, it’s 75,000. The state-level districts can deviate by 5 percent.

Rucho hopes to receive the needed statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau in late February and to begin holding public hearings on redistricting soon afterward. The Legislature could vote on the plan as early as mid-May. That would give them enough time to submit the proposed new districts to the U.S. Justice Department by June 1, leaving six months for review. This would allow the new districts to go into effect for the 2012 campaign season.

Hall encourages citizens to monitor the redistricting process. His group, Democracy N.C., and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice are connecting the public with political scientists and demographers. Citizens can draw their own maps and submit them for consideration.

Based on early census estimates and political tea leaf reading, pundits point to congressional districts currently represented by Democrats G.K. Butterfield, Larry Kissell and Mel Watt as the most likely to be altered.

Butterfield represents parts of northeastern North Carolina, where the population has decreased. (Final census numbers aren’t yet available.) Watt’s district, which stretches from Charlotte to Greensboro, could become more heavily African-American. That may strengthen Watt’s position but splinter the party base for neighboring Democrats like Kissell, who represents District 8, from Concord to Laurinberg.

“The real trick is that population has had a huge shift toward the I-85 corridor that will change sizes and dimensions along that way,” Rucho said. “Like when you push one side of a balloon, another side pops; there will be some give and take.”

Jensen said Republicans could pick up two congressional seats through redistricting. They currently hold five of the 13 spots.

GOP leaders also could use this opportunity to tighten their hold on swing districts, like the 2nd, where Renee Ellmers narrowly defeated Bob Etheridge for the House seat in November.

“If I were the Republicans, that’s the one I would be targeting the most because, in its current form, that one could easily go back to the Democrats in 2012,” Jensen said.

On the state level, Jensen expects the districts to be “more similar to what we have right now than people probably are expecting,” because legislators will be hesitant to shift their supporters to another district.

“Selfishness is going to pervade a lot of this process, and that is going to minimize the gains that the Republicans can make over the next 10 years, but there are definitely some places where they can do a number,” Jensen said.