Dozens of people packed into seven public hearings across the state last night to weigh in on North Carolina's proposed maps for nearly thirty legislative districts, and they were not pleased.
"When I look at the new maps I'm amazed by the contortions and variegated shapes of many areas," said Kim Koo, a member of the Rocky Mount Racial Justice Group. "It looks like a collage and a distortion of reality. It's so twisted. It takes a lot of work and conscious thought to come up with such a map, and it is both racist and divisive."
The new maps come after the Supreme Court in June sided with a lower court ruling that 28 of the state's 170 legislative districts were illegally racially gerrymandered. To remedy that, courts gave the legislature until September 1 to draw new legislative districts.
The maps the General Assembly approves—votes are scheduled for Friday—could make a real difference in the state's legislative makeup. Although North Carolina is a purple state, Republicans hold supermajorities in both the House and the Senate, allowing them to override Democratic governor Roy Cooper's vetoes. Democrats need to win just three seats in the House or six in the Senate to break the supermajority and hand Cooper enough power to sustain his vetoes.
Voters know the stakes are high. The next round of redistricting will be handled by the legislature elected in 2020, and the party that controls the General Assembly will have the ability to solidify its power. Democrats might be able to overcome the supermajority in 2018, but to have influence over the next set of district maps, they’ll need to make much more progress by 2020. (The governor does have the authority to veto districts he may not like.) So constituents seeking to change the balance of power in Raleigh in 2018 and after know the current redistricting process matters.
The redistricting committee released two major sources of information before yesterday's hearing. Over the weekend, committee members made their proposed maps public, and on Monday, they released demographic data for the proposed districts—including an area’s past voting patterns—which were used to draw the new maps. But the maps and the way the process unfolded angered many constituents. Over the course of the hours-long hearing, which more than sixty people contributed to, less than a handful of people spoke favorably of the maps.
Many people who chimed in were upset not just with the maps but the methods by which they were drawn and introduced to the public. Recently, Republican lawmakers confirmed that they will use the same political consultant, Tom Hofeller, who helped them craft the 2011 maps deemed to be illegal gerrymanders; for his services, they paid him $50,000. Additionally, lawmakers introduced the new maps over the weekend—just a few days before the hearing. Many people on Tuesday night emphatically stated they had not been given enough time to sufficiently view the maps and the data used to draw them before the hearing.
"Releasing the maps and information on the redrawn districts maps so late and so last-minute on the day before public hearings is an act of disrespect to all the people of the state," said Koo. "We need time to study and respond to them. You have not given us our due. This last-minute release maneuver smacks of dishonesty and secrecy and a lack of openness, which is a disgrace for public officials paid for with public dollars."
Although the new districts have the potential to sway the balance of power in Raleigh, the proposed maps are unlikely do so. Bob Phillips, the executive director of the advocacy organization Common Cause, which has long advocated for nonpartisan redistricting reform, told the INDY Republicans will likely retain their supermajorities in the legislature with the proposed new maps.
"The current maps are clearly an example of partisan gerrymandering and it gets the same results that we had with the old maps," he said. "This is again the legislature being guilty of being partisan gerrymandering."
According to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, the new redistricting plan will give a substantial boost to Republicans: "I conclude that both the Proposed House Plan and the Proposed Senate Plan will likely provide a large and durable advantage to Republican voters and candidates in the coming two elections," wrote Ruth Greenwood, Campaign's senior legal counsel. "Assuming a statewide uniform swing in the vote, in order for there to be a Republican majority in the House, Republicans will only need a statewide vote of 45.7%. By contrast, a Democratic statewide vote share of 54.8% will be needed to secure a Democratic majority in the House. This is asymmetrical, and evidences a severe bias in favor of Republican voters."
At the hearing, voters who spoke out were incensed by the notion that lawmakers could choose their voters, rather than the other way around.
"I was raised to believe that democracy is something sacred," said Dan Brady, speaking at the Central Piedmont Community College. "I have never in my life missed an election. That's why I'm so appalled at what I've seen in the last few years to try to steal the sacred right to vote for people simply because they might not vote the right way. … Rather than speak to a committee or a legislature who has failed their responsibilities and clearly doesn't respect this sacred thing called democracy, I'd like to speak directly to the courts involved: please see these maps for what they are."
Bobbie Schaffer, an elderly woman from Fayetteville, put it succinctly: "When I saw the map of existing districts, it reminded me of when my kids were small and coloring, and I said, 'You're coloring outside the lines.' It looks like whoever drew this map certainly was coloring outside the lines. To the ones who drew the maps, if you need any help, I think I can help. I think I could do a better job."
A number of people also angrily made reference to Hofeller, the GOP's mapmaking consultant.
"Think about these cases that we've had to deal with in North Carolina. The list is long," said Derrick Smith, political action chairman of the Greensboro chapter of the NAACP. "The Supreme Court ruled that these are unconstitutional districts. And yet, somehow, in their infinite wisdom this General Assembly believes that it must continue to pay Thomas Hofeller to continue to do this to the state of North Carolina. The message that they're sending him is either they like what he's doing or they're rewarding incompetence. I believe they like what he's doing. Because they can maintain power, keep the system all locked up in the legal process while they maintain power. So number one, Thomas Hofeller’s gotta go."
After the legislature approves the maps, they must be submitted for approval to the three-judge panel by September 1.
For more information, and to review the maps and data presented by the committee, click on the links below: