RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina lawmakers should avoid partisan considerations when they redraw legislative district maps that were struck down by federal courts, a parade of speakers said Friday.
Nearly all of the 30 speakers at a joint House-Senate committee meeting on the map criteria asked GOP leaders to ignore data such as past election results, voter registration and where incumbents live when drawing the new boundaries later this month. Many pressed for a nonpartisan process handled by an outside commission.
“I want to see the end of political gerrymandering. Districts cannot be drawn intentionally or unduly favoring any political party,” unaffiliated voter Amy Porter from Alamance County told lawmakers. “Remember that you work for us.”
The current maps, approved by the General Assembly in 2011, contributed to helping Republican expand their majorities in the General Assembly and carry out their conservative agenda.
Three judges in August 2016 threw out 28 of the House and Senate districts as illegal racial gerrymanders, but the ruling wasn’t finalized until a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June. Voters who sued accused GOP mapmakers of needlessly creating too many majority-black voters in the districts to make surrounding districts more white and Republican.
No independent redistricting commission will be created when the legislature reconvenes Aug. 18 to begin the remapping process before a Sept. 1 deadline by the three-judge panel to receive the approved maps. And past election results are likely to be among the criteria the committees agree to use when standards are finalized next week, Rep. David Lewis, senior chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, said after the meeting.
Lewis told reporters that the public comments would be reviewed, along with proposed criteria from Democratic legislators, and some could be incorporated. The requests from Friday’s speakers for an open process also have been heard, he said.
“I hope that we will be able to bridge that gap and to conduct a politically transparent process,” Lewis said. “I think that people will be pleased with the process.”
Republicans say more than 100 of the legislature’s 170 districts likely will have to be redrawn, but districts across wide swaths of western and southeastern North Carolina likely will remain unchanged because they aren’t near the districts that the courts rejected, according to documents presented in committee.
Courts have ruled on whether it’s unacceptable to use race in redistricting, but gerrymandering for partisan gains has not been struck down by courts as unlawful. A Wisconsin case on partisan gerrymandering will soon be considered by the Supreme Court.
Still, the speakers largely focused on minimizing politics in drawing the maps. Partisanship in redistricting, they said, has contributed to dozens of seats where incumbents run unopposed. Some speakers acknowledged that Democrats drew maps to benefit them politically when they were in charge in previous decades.
“I want my vote to matter,” said Ira Botvinick of Raleigh. “Redistricting should foster, to the great extent possible, competition so as to provide better government for all North Carolinians.”
North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse urged legislators to resist creating districts solely to favor Democrats in a state where Donald Trump carried 76 of 100 counties and other Republicans have been successful in statewide races.
“It is not the job of the committee to make that party competitive when it cannot do so itself in huge areas of the state,” Woodhouse said. He also urged lawmakers to leave out racial data from their deliberations.
Republicans said they didn’t look at the racial composition of the electorate when a court ordered them to redraw congressional districts in February 2016. In fact, GOP lawmakers agreed then over Democratic objections to criteria for boundaries that would help Republicans keep a 10-3 seat advantage within the state’s congressional delegation.