John Hood: Two redistricting issues to watch

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 26, 2011

By John Hood
Carolina Journal
RALEIGH ó If there is anything more controversial, convoluted, and confusing in North Carolina politics than redistricting, I have yet to run across it.
There is no pristine process for generating congressional or legislative districts, particularly when it is conducted by partisan actors. And I favor redistricting reform that 1) sets clear, enforceable standards for district maps and 2) entrusts the implementation of those standards to individuals who do not hold elective office.
But such a reform is probably years away. It will require significant public debate, legislative agreement, and public approval in a constitutional referendum. In the meantime, districts for the 2012 elections must be drawn. The Republican-led General Assembly is going to do it.
Here are two of the issues Iíll be watching as the redistricting process unfolds in the coming weeks:
How many incumbents will be drawn into common districts?
Some observers seem to believe there is something fishy about legislative or congressional maps that would force sitting members to run against each other to retain their offices. From a good government perspective, the opposite is true. We should be suspicious of any maps that donít force incumbents into common districts.
After all, the very reason we redraw political maps every 10 years is that population shifts. Those shifts will inevitably make some districts too populous and others too thinly populated. To meet criteria such as one-person-one-vote and compactness, the lines must adjust accordingly. The interests of incumbents ought not to be taken into consideration as the lines adjust. The interests of voters ought to be paramount. Thus any fairly administered redistricting process will result in some endangered incumbents.
Obviously, if the only incumbents forced into common districts are Democrats, that would be compelling evidence of partisan bias. But if both Democrats and Republicans fin themselves bereft of their safe political sinecures, I would see that as a feature of the redistricting plan, not a bug.
What interpretation of the federal Voting Rights Act will prevail?
Anyone who tells you that North Carolinaís redistricting process is simple enough to be put on autopilot has not read the relevant court cases. If our state wasnít under the jurisdiction of the Voting Rights Act, redistricting could indeed be largely accomplished by a series of mathematical formulas.
But with VRA in the picture, lawmakers are compelled to balance criteria such as compactness and community cohesion (e.g. the whole-county provision) with racial considerations.
The problem is that there is no consensus about what the Voting Rights Act requires. As legislative staffers explain in this helpful backgrounder on the General Assembly website, the U.S. Supreme Courtís Gingles decision compels North Carolina to avoid ěretrogressionî of minority voting interests in the 40 counties subject to Section 5 of the VRA. Historically, that was interpreted to mean that redistricting maps were impermissible if they appeared to make it less likely that minorities could elected representatives from among their own group if they so desired.
But in a subsequent federal case, Shaw vs. Reno, the Supreme Court concluded that lawmakers could run afoul of the VRA if their district maps made too much use of racial considerations. How much is too much? That remains the subject of significant disagreement.
In their preliminary legislative maps for 2012, Republican leaders appear to increase the number of majority-black districts, to 24 in the House and nine in the Senate. Right now, there are 18 black representatives and seven black senators. While most of the proposed districts are reasonably compact, given the circumstances, there are several, particularly in the House, that may draw criticism. The redistricting chairs have explained the legal basis for their proposal.
As a matter of personal philosophy, I donít like the whole enterprise of drawing political districts with the aim of maximizing the election of blacks, Hispanics, whites, or anyone else. But I recognize that my personal preference is inconsistent with the Voting Rights Act as currently constituted.
There are other issues to be watching, too. But incumbency and Voting Rights Act compliance are a good place to start.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of the Carolina Journal.