WRAL.com - by Travis Fain & Laura Leslie - August 4, 2017
[LWV-Wake member Mike Jennings is quoted in this article.]
Lawmakers drawing new election maps under a federal court order heard a steady drumbeat from the public Friday on the process that will guide these new lines: Drop the partisanship and deliver maps untethered from political goals.
Twenty-nine of 30 speakers, many connected to left-leaning political groups, called for some form of redistricting reform. Many asked for an independent committee to draw maps. Most asked lawmakers not to look at any voting data or incumbent addresses when they draw maps and just let the chips fall where they may.
A young man warned Republicans in charge of this process that his generation will not stand for a process that requires the U.S. Supreme Court to declare maps unconstitutional after years of legal fights. A grandfather invoked The Golden Rule, asking Republicans to forget that the Democratic majority gerrymandered maps for its own gain long before the GOP won power in 2010.
"Let's turn the corner," said Mike Jennings of Cary. "My children, my grandchildren, are depending on you to keep this a democracy that works for everyone."
The lone exception to this parade of public calls for change was Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, who took the podium in favor of "traditional criteria" for this new round of map-making. Democrats often point to close statewide elections as proof that only crooked maps could elect a House that leans 74-46 toward Republicans and a Senate split 35-15 in favor of the GOP, both veto-proof majorities.
But Woodhouse said Republican President Donald Trump won 76 of North Carolina's 100 counties. It is not the committee's job to make Democrats who have bunched into urban areas competitive at the statehouse, he said.
"The minority party in this body has a geography problem," he said.
After the hearing, Redistricting Committee Chairman
said he heard a lot of frustration and some confusion about how maps had been drawn in the past. He did not deny a partisan push. Lewis, R-Harnett, was bald-faced about this last year, when Republicans baked into the criteria for new congressional maps that they would need to elect 10 Republicans out of 13 seats.
"I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats," Lewis said at the time.
Lewis said some criteria submitted by Democrats at Thursday's meeting was "very good" and that he wants people to see some bipartisanship in these new maps. He said map makers do not look at voter registration data or voter primary participation when they draw maps, as many speakers believed, looking instead at election results to predict which way a new district will lean.
That, Lewis said, "will probably be a criteria that this committee adopts."
Lewis also denied a frequent accusation that Republican legislators have already drawn maps, saying he has not drawn maps, nor has he directed anyone to draw them.
"Nor am I aware of any other entity operating in conjunction with the leadership that has drawn maps," he said.
Republicans will again bring in Tom Hofeller to draw the maps, relying on the same Republican consultant who drew the 2011 maps that were eventually thrown out by a Supreme Court decision. Hofeller draws maps for GOP legislative majorities around the country, and his involvement again in North Carolina has not put advocates for change in a trusting mood.
House and Senate Democrats mentioned Hofeller at a news conference Friday morning at which they called on GOP leaders to leave partisan advantage out of the criteria this time. They said advances in technology have allowed partisan map makers to select voters with near-surgical precision, elevating gerrymandering to an extreme form never seen before.
"This is not our grandfathers' redistricting," said Sen. Terry van Duyn, D-Buncombe.
In the last legislative election, she noted, almost half of all incumbent lawmakers didn't even have an opponent because their districts are designed to lean so heavily toward one party or the other.
"This has gone way too far, and it's no wonder that people check out and think elections don't matter if they get to the polls and don't even have a candidate," she said. "We have got to fix this."
Partisan redraws are not illegal, though. North Carolina's current maps were declared unconstitutional because of a racial gerrymander the courts said packed too many minority voters into too few districts, diluting their voting strength in surrounding areas. In those maps, race was used as a proxy for partisanship. A pending Supreme Court case from Wisconsin may end up changing U.S. law when it comes to partisan gerrymanders.
Near the end of Friday's hearing, 19-year-old James Wood took the podium in obvious anger over the majority's multi-year effort to defend its maps, a legal fight that Democrats said Friday has cost nearly $5.5 million.
"I have watched you fight justice tooth and nail," Wood said.
Wood warned legislators that, as his generation ascends, things will be different.
"We are done with your pettiness," he said.
As Wood returned to his seat, some applause broke out in the crowded committee room. A legislative sergeant-at-arms stood to repeat an admonition on disruptive behavior.
"You can't do that," he said.
Another round of public hearings in various parts of the state will be announced soon, Lewis said. Comments can be submitted online, and information on the map-making process is also available online.
Republicans hope to vote on new maps on Aug. 24, though the date is not set in stone. The court deadline to submit maps for review is Sept. 1.