Editorial: Redistricting reform revisited

  • Posted: Sunday, May 5, 2013 12:10 a.m.

It’s usually naive to think a political party in power might willingly cede any of its hard-won electoral gains, particularly when those gains have come after decades of being legislative back-benchers.

Dare we hope, then, that Republican legislative leaders in North Carolina might go against conventional political wisdom and push through a proposal that would give an independent panel the power to draw the state’s legislative and Congressional districts? Could the GOP muster the courage to do what Democrats have considered in the past but ultimately backed away from, even though they knew it was in the voters’ best interests?

Where there’s a bill, there’s a way. In this case, it’s House Bill 606, a redistricting reform plan that has true bipartisan support, with 61 N.C. House members signing on, including Rep. Harry Warren of Rowan County.

The bill’s basics are straightforward: At redistricting time (generally following a new census), it would establish a five-member redistricting commission. The Senate president pro tem, the Senate minority leader, the House speaker and the House minority leader would each choose one member; those four appointees would then choose a fifth member, to serve as the commission’s chair. The commission would redraw lines as necessary, based on the overall numbers of voters, without regard for their political affiliations or past election results. The districts would be compact, contiguous and apportion population as equally as possible. And — an important point for bifurcated counties like Rowan — the commission would avoid splitting cities and counties between districts. The General Assembly as a whole would then vote on whether to accept or reject the maps, but could not change the lines.

The bill doesn’t eliminate politics from the process — an impossibility — but it would level the playing field. An independent commission would be far more likely to give voters the kind of coherent districts they’re supposed to be getting now — but aren’t because of political gerrymandering. Instead, we have a misshapen political map that often defies geographical cohesion and creates too many “safe” districts where incumbents face little or no opposition. As has often been said, it’s a system where politicians choose their voters, rather than voters choosing their representatives.

The bill’s bipartisan support is encouraging, and smart Republicans and Democrats alike should realize the state’s rapid growth and shifting demographics make it imperative to implement a more professional, data-driven redistricting process. However, we’ve had our hopes dashed before. In 2011, when the Democrats were in power, a similar measure had strong support in the House but withered in the Senate. Recent polls show a majority of North Carolinians support an independent redistricting panel. Voters need to speak up now and demand that their state representatives make redistricting reform a reality.

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