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Colin Campbell: Incumbent lawmakers shouldn’t get special treatment on maps

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Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

RALEIGH — State Reps. Grier Martin and Cynthia Ball, both D-Wake, agree on most of the issues that come before the legislature, but it’s possible that 2018’s election could pit them against each other in the Democratic primary.

Martin and Ball are among at least four pairs of incumbents that would find themselves in the same district under maps drawn by the redistricting “special master,” a Stanford University law professor hired by federal court judges to redraw nine districts challenged as unconstitutional in a lawsuit. But the maps are just the first draft, and the special master is seeking feedback on ways to avoid “double-bunking” the incumbents.

But should protecting incumbents even be a priority? The special master’s proposal marks the first time in more than a decade that the home addresses of sitting lawmakers haven’t been a major factor. And it’s the first time someone outside the state has drawn districts — someone who presumably doesn’t care which party will win which district.

If you don’t like gerrymandering, you’ll like the proposed maps. Take Cumberland County, for example. Democratic Sen. Ben Clark’s district currently looks like the wildest sea monster imaginable, with tentacles reaching out in every direction to grab any neighborhood with a high concentration of Democrats and/or African-Americans — leaving the rest of Cumberland as a safe district for Republican Sen. Wesley Meredith.

When judges ruled that to be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, Republican legislators drew a more compact version of the district. The tentacles were replaced with what looks like an arm reaching into Cumberland from neighboring Hoke County.

But Clark was unhappy that his new district didn’t include a home he’d recently purchased, so Republicans agreed to add what looks like a middle finger to the end of the arm — ensuring Clark can stay in office if he moves.

The special master’s proposal would cut off that finger and make the district far more compact — Hoke County and the northwestern corner of Cumberland County. It’s a near-perfect example of the “fair maps” that Democrats and other gerrymandering opponents have been calling for.

Incumbent legislators, however, don’t want to get “double-bunked” with their colleagues. It would make re-election a lot harder, and so some of them are working on alternatives that would keep them in separate districts.

It’s understandable that politicians don’t want to leave office until they retire or lose an election. But tweaking maps to protect incumbents is simply another example of gerrymandering — and if you want fair elections, you can’t expect special favors from the special master. He’s been tasked with correcting racial gerrymanders and eliminating what the lawsuit claims were unnecessary changes made to the current maps.

He says he’s willing to avoid double-bunking incumbents, but I see no reason that should be part of the equation. Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, said it best when I asked him about the maps that pair him with an incumbent Democrat. “I would prefer for us to not have to run against each other,” he told me. “But the seats don’t belong to us, they belong to the people, and we have to respect the process.”

Focusing on incumbents is inherently unfair to potential candidates who aren’t in the legislature but want to run next year. The uncertainty over what the district lines will look like is already putting political newcomers at a disadvantage. It’s hard to raise money and organize a campaign if you don’t know what district you’re in or who your opponent might be.

The clock is ticking fast toward the February 2018 candidate filing period. Let’s hope the special master finishes his proposal soon — and judges quickly decide if it’s the right approach — so North Carolina can get on with a fair and democratic election next year.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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