Lawmakers from the N.C. House of Representatives put on a united front Tuesday to talk about bipartisan efforts to end gerrymandering in the state.
Two bills aimed at securing a nonpartisan redistricting process are likely to emerge this legislative session.
The first, sponsored by Reps. Paul (Skip) Stam, Jon Hardister and Chuck McGrady, all Republicans, and Grier Martin, a Democrat, would give the power to draw up congressional and legislative voting maps to a nonpartisan legislative staff rather than to partisan lawmakers, for the next round of redistricting beginning in 2021.
Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said he would file a second bill this week with Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg Democrat, that would charge a nine-member, bipartisan commission—appointed from all three branches of state government— with submitting three redistricting maps. After a public comment period, the General Assembly would have 120 days to approve one of the maps. The timeline for this process would begin in 2028, with the first redistricting to take place in 2031.
Both bills would call for a referendum to enshrine a nonpartisan redistricting process in the state’s Constitution, as in the fourteen other states that have adopted redistricting reform.
“I think we all agree that redistricting reform is necessary,” said Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford. “It’s about good government, it’s about the golden rule, treating others the way you want to be treated.”
The Republican-led N.C. House approved a redistricting reform bill in 2011 (and sponsored another in 2013, which wasn’t brought to a vote) but the bill died in the Senate. And the Senate may prove to be an obstacle again this time around.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said that the extended timelines for reform, and the option of two bills, “is, to me, a way to incentivize the Senate to join on.”
“The goal is getting past the Senate,” McGrady said. “Getting it done is the most important thing and I firmly believe we will gain more traction with our friends in the Senate by giving them this option.”
Rep. Stam is hopeful that the Senate will be on board this session. “Times change, people change, ideas change,” he said. “We work on it.”
Numbers from the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform illustrate the need for an independent redistricting process. On average since 1992, 43 percent of state legislative races have been contested; in the 2014 election, just 8 percent of legislative races were competitive, being decided by 5 percentage points or less, “diminishing the voice of the political middle,” said Liz Johnson, Mayor Pro Tem of Morrisville and a member of the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
“The current redistricting process can split communities with similar problems and similar needs,” she said. “Dividing communities with interest can leave these communities without the strong, unified voice they need at the Legislature. It can leave voters with similar economic interests split up or fractured when it comes to political representation.”