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Colin Campbell: Why not pursue redistricting reform now?

By Colin Campbell

RALEIGH — Ten years ago this month, a group of state legislators filed a proposal to take politics out of drawing legislative and congressional districts.

Their bill sought an independent redistricting commission — four Democrats, four Republicans and three people unaffiliated with the two major parties — to draw the lines. The goal was to end gerrymandering: No longer could parties use software to game the system and ensure a legislative majority. They’d be banned from carving communities in half along racial or partisan lines, or drawing a safe district to ensure their re-election.

The bipartisan group sponsoring the bill included Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett. They were back-benchers in the minority party in 2009, but now they hold the most powerful posts in the legislature. The independent redistricting bill was filed in February 2009 and, like countless other attempts, went nowhere. Democratic leaders felt certain they’d win another majority in 2010 and have the power to gerrymander the districts yet again. So they threw the bill in the trash.

Fast-forward a decade. Democrats have been out of power since a Republican wave in 2010, thanks in part to GOP efforts to draw districts that favor their party. The Democratic Party now makes independent redistricting a top priority. But now it’s Berger, Moore, Brown and Lewis who keep throwing redistricting bills in the garbage.

Still, the ever-hopeful proponents of redistricting reform think this year might be different. The GOP’s majority has grown narrower as North Carolina’s urban areas become more liberal, and there’s a chance a big “blue wave” against President Donald Trump in 2020 could put Democrats in charge of drawing the next maps.

A redistricting commission proposal — similar to the 2009 measure — already has more than half of all House legislators as co-sponsors, including about a dozen Republicans. It would likely pass if brought to a vote, but there’s no indication that Moore and Lewis will allow that to happen.

Skeptics of the independent commission idea question whether the group would really keep politics out of their deliberations. That’s not a legitimate concern, because the bill would require at least two members of each group on the commission — Democrats, Republicans and people who are neither — to support the final plan.

But there’s an alternative for the haters, and it even has the seal of approval from Republican mega-donor Art Pope! This one, unveiled last week as the “FAIR Act,” would eliminate the concerns about a redistricting commission by putting the map-drawing standards directly into the state’s constitution.

The constitutional amendment would ban all consideration of partisan and election results statistics — “any data that could reasonably determine the voting tendencies of a group of citizens,” explained the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson. The districts would have to be “reasonably compact” and keep counties whole when possible — no more weird snake-like monster districts allowed.

The legislature’s nonpartisan staff would do the heavy lifting of preparing maps, with legislators still responsible for approving the final project. And by putting the rules in the constitution, voters would be approving the plan, and future legislatures couldn’t easily circumvent the requirements.

“The most important thing we can do at this point in time is to get people to have confidence in our government again,” said Rep. Robert Reives, D-Chatham and the lead Democrat behind the bill.

Both the amendment and the commission proposals are solid starting points for a debate on gerrymandering. But the debate can’t happen unless Republican leaders let the bills have hearings and votes — something they’ve refused to allow in recent sessions.

My guess is the bills won’t move unless we get to the summer of 2020 and see polls forecasting a big win for Democrats. But Berger, Moore, Lewis and Brown would be wise to have a heart-to-heart chat with their younger selves, who backed the 2009 bill.

If this was a good idea then, why not now? Don’t repeat the mistakes of the General Assembly’s last Democratic leaders — don’t wait until you’re out of power to change your mind.

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

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