North Carolina’s Republican-led General Assembly has approved a set of legislative district maps to replace the 2011 plans thrown out by the courts for being illegal racial gerrymanders. The problem, many critics say, is the new maps are just as bad.
The full House voted 65-47 for district lines that appear to help the GOP retain its strong majority in the chamber. The Senate followed late Monday with a 31-15 vote giving final approval to its remap, which also should help keep Republicans firmly in charge there, too.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling that Republican lawmakers had relied too heavily on race to draw district lines for the 2011 maps. Twenty-eight of the voting districts—19 in the state House, 9 in the Senate—were drawn in a way that diluted the power of black voters. GOP legislative leaders are now under court order to submit new maps for judicial review by Friday. A panel of three federal judges will decide whether the proposed replacement maps pass constitutional muster; if not, the judges can take over the redrawing of districts themselves.
At public hearings held simultaneously statewide last week, hundreds of people signed up to comment on the proposed maps. The overwhelming majority slammed the plans as designed to rig elections in favor of the Republican majority. Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly, giving them significant political advantage over the Democratic governor, Roy Cooper.
Mitchell Cook was 64th in line to speak at the public hearing in Raleigh. The 23-year-old described himself as an unaffiliated voter and before the hearing got underway said he believed district maps should be drawn by an independent, non-partisan commission, not politicians.
"So that the districts are truly representative of the voice and the views of the people of North Carolina rather than just artificially favoring one party over the other,” Mitchell added.
Gina Cruz, also of Raleigh, sounded a similar theme in her remarks at the public hearing. Cruz is a state director with the Progressive Turnout Project, a grassroots political action committee that aims to increase turnout among Democratic voters.
"We deserve maps that don't protect incumbents who won based on maps that were ruled racially gerrymandered,” Cruz told the House and Senate redistricting committee members.
Republican Senator Ralph Hise, of Mitchell County, dismissed the clamoring for a non-partisan redistricting process. In a committee meeting on the proposed replacement map, Hise said he neither believed in unicorns nor the “mythical” nonpartisan redistricting commission. Hise chairs the Senate select redistricting committee.
Republicans Not Racist, House Minority Leader Says
In the Senate debate on its proposed district map, Democrats offered one failed amendment after another. Democratic senators like Minority Leader Dan Blue, of Wake County, said Republicans failed to address the key problem cited by the courts: racial gerrymandering.
Republican legislators adopted the following criteria to apply to the re-drawing of the district maps: equal population, contiguity, compactness, fewer split precincts, county groupings and traversal, municipal boundaries, incumbency protection, and past election data. However, as many Republican lawmakers have pointed out in arguments supporting the replacement maps, racial data was not considered.
In the House, Minority Leader Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, said he did not think Republicans racially gerrymandered districts in 2011 because they were racists. However, his statements during floor debate did strongly suggest he believed Republicans were guilty of cynicism, determined to preserve their stranglehold on power. Especially by using map-making consultant Thomas B. Hofeller, who helped draw the 2011 maps thrown out by the courts.
“I know that partisan gerrymandering has not been struck down by the courts yet, plans like the one before us today are putting us on that path,” Jackson warned.
“There are bad Democratic gerrymanders in states like Maryland and bad Republican ones in states like Wisconsin but we remain the top dog in gerrymandering. Nobody does it like North Carolina, we’re number one.”
But Senate President Pro Tem Phil Beger, a Rockingham County Republican, delivered a harsh assessment to Democrats. In urging his colleagues to approve the Senate redistricting plan, Berger cited election data to show how uncompetitive Democrats have become in many counties statewide, most of them outside urban areas. The problem for Democrats, he argued, is a failing message, not gerrymandering.
“When I first ran for the state senate many of the Democrats in this chamber, and many of the Democrats running, shared the cultural values of North Carolina's moderate to conservative voters. They were pro-education but many were also pro-business, pro-gun, and pro-life,” Berger said.
Now, Berger argued, Democrats in North Carolina are aligned with what he called powerful, national special interests such as labor unions, environmental advocacy groups and the pro-choice lobby.
“It’s easy to understand why gerrymandering has been the boogeyman since they were swept out of power in 2010. It’s easier to blame the maps, blame a process, blame anything, really, than it is to take responsibility for losing touch with the politics of voters in 75 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.”
U.S. Supreme Court To Look At Partisan Gerrymandering
The nation’s highest court will consider the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering this fall when the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case out of Wisconsin.
To hold onto their super-majorities in North Carolina, Republicans must win a minimum of 72 seats in the 120-seat House and at least 30 of the 50 Senate seats. The GOP currently holds 74 seats in the House and 35 in the Senate.
As they stand, the new maps easily could give Republicans what they want, according to the past election data the map makers used to re-draw the districts. Ironically, it was Republicans who accused Democrats of trying with their many proposed alternatives, to create maps that would deliver political dominance.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.