In an article on its website last week, the conservative Civitas Institute argued that stripping legislators of the right to draw their own districts—in other words, letting politicians pick their voters, instead of the other way around, which has for the last several years had the practical effect of guaranteeing Republican dominance of Jones Street—would somehow dilute voters' power and is a "fantasy" being peddled by liberals.
This is an asinine argument for any number of reasons, not least of which is that way back in 2009, when Republicans were in the minority, Civitas had the exact opposite opinion on the subject. (After the INDY linked to a 2009 post on Civitas's site explaining why the state needed redistricting reform, Civitas appears to have deleted the entry. In fairness, though, many Tar Heel Dems have altered their positions on the issue since power has changed hands, too. In politics, convictions are often a matter of convenience.) But it's undeniable that the state's legislative districts—which a federal court ruled last year were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders; it ordered new special elections this year, though last month the U.S. Supreme Court put those on hold—amount to, at the very least, incumbent protectors. In November, just one state senator and two state representatives lost their reelection bids.
Might that be about to change? Despite the GOP stranglehold on the General Assembly, reform advocates are hopeful. Their goal is a bill that would give redistricting power to legislative staff rather than politicians; those staffers would then have to follow strict criteria, such as keeping districts compact and adhering to the Voting Rights Act. This sort of thing passed the House in 2011 but died in the Senate. It was reintroduced in 2015 with a majority of House members cosponsoring it but stalled in committee, according to the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform.
Gerrymandering is "going to end soon," says David Meeker, the co-owner of Raleigh's Trophy Brewing who's been a vocal advocate of redistricting reform. (Meeker, of course, is former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker's son; he is also the nephew of INDY co-owner Richard Meeker.) The buzz within the General Assembly, he says, is that even Republican lawmakers would be amenable to such a change. Especially since, if Donald Trump leads the GOP to ruin in 2020—something that doesn't seem all that implausible after week one—Democrats would control how districts are drawn for the next decade.
"Everybody is talking about it," Meeker says. "From what I hear from both sides, it does have a shot. It's not a sure deal it's going to get passed, but it has a good shot. Just like when the Dems were gerrymandering things, there were principled Dems saying, 'We shouldn't be doing this. It's bad.' Will [Senate leader Phil] Berger be the next Joe Hackney?" he asks, referring to the 2009 Democratic House leader, who chose not to introduce an anti-gerrymandering bill, and then handed control to Republicans in 2011.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Line Dance."