Democrats seek independent commission amidst NC redistricting battle

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – In the midst of yet another legal battle over the state’s electoral districts, some Democrats are advocating for establishing an independent commission to draw those districts instead of politicians in the General Assembly. 

But, they note that in some states that have attempted that approach, it hasn’t always led to the kind of reform they actually want to see.  

“I know in some states it breaks down because of partisan politics. I think there’s a way to fix that,” said state Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham County). “We need to get the trust of people back. We need to get the excitement of voters back, that they are deciding who they’re going to vote for and it’s not us drawing the maps.” 

Earlier this week, the state Supreme Court ordered next year’s primary election be moved from March 8 to May 17 and stopped candidates from continuing to file to run for office just three days into the filing period. 

That move came after a series of lawsuits were filed against Republican state legislators, accusing them of illegally gerrymandering the districts for the General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives.  

A lower court has been ordered to issue a ruling by Jan. 11. If the maps are ultimately found to be unconstitutional, Republicans could be ordered to redraw them and potentially shake up who even runs for office in 2022.  

“The system is broken,” said Morey, who has advocated for a constitutional amendment to establish a citizens redistricting commission, noting North Carolina has been at the center of legal battles over its redistricting process for decades. “And, I think it causes too much uncertainty and too much suspicion.” 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, ten states have commissions with the primary responsibility of drawing a plan for congressional districts. They include Arizona, Colorado, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Michigan, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington. 

Additional states have advisory commissions. Iowa has a unique system where nonpartisan legislative staff draw the maps, according to NCSL.  

Virginia started using its independent commission this year, but it ended with the commission failing to approve new districts. 

WRIC in Richmond recently reported:  

“Hoping to end gerrymandering in Virginia, voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of the bipartisan redistricting commission to oversee the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing political maps. 

“After months of work, the commission made up of eight lawmakers and eight citizen members reached a partisan deadlock and abandoned the effort without submitting new maps to the state legislature.” 

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, pointed to other states that he said have had success in using this model. His group is among several that have sued Republicans in North Carolina over the new district maps. 

“California and Michigan in our minds have some of the better models and that is where they’re truly evenly divided Republican, Democratic and Independent citizens who are coming together for one purpose,” he said. “When you have legislative appointees on those commissions, you’re kind of recreating what you have in the legislature: partisan gridlock.” 

State Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), one of the members of the General Assembly who led the redistricting process, said he still believes there would be legal challenges to maps produced by an independent commission.  

“A ‘non-partisan’ redistricting doesn’t change any of those challenges,” said Hise. “The challenges that you’re seeing in court today are about what they believe are how many Democrats get elected in the map, and if it doesn’t elect enough Democrats they’re going to file another case.” 

Independent analyses of the Congressional districts Republicans drew have generally shown them to be favored to win at least 10 of the state’s 14 seats. State legislatures across the country are in the process of redrawing the districts to account for changes in their populations following the 2020 Census. 

The process is occurring as both parties attempt to seize control of Congress in the 2022 midterm election. The redistricting process plays a key role in that, as the districts’ design often predetermines which party prevails before any votes are even cast.  

“It doesn’t matter who drew that map. It is about the outcomes and how they produce in Congress, and that is what they are suing on because they think that they can use the court to pick up more seats,” said Hise. “When we started this state and we placed in the hands of these elected legislators to draw the districts in the state, that was an appropriate choice then and remains an appropriate choice now.” 

Phillips noted the calls for reform are often popular with the party out of power, recalling standing with Republicans years ago in pushing for changes when Democrats controlled the General Assembly and were unwilling to cede the power to draw the districts. 

“We somehow have to get everybody together recognizing and willing to join hands and say, ‘enough,’” Phillips said. “Because the pendulum swings back and forth, one day the Democratic Party may be back in charge. And, do the Republicans right now in power, do they want to have done to them what they’re doing to the other side?” 

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