From the Asheville Citizen Times
CLYDE – Changes in the law and more sophisticated computer technology used to draw political districts have entrenched partisan divides to the point of threatening American democracy, experts say.
No more than 30 of the nation’s 435 U.S. House districts can be considered winnable by a candidate of either party, speakers at a forum on redistricting said this week.
Only one name appeared on ballots in nearly half of all North Carolina House and Senate races last year.
With so few choices, candidates on the far right and far left ends of the ideological spectrum dominate the selection of officeholders, Tom Ross, the former head of the UNC system, told about 180 people at a forum on the issue at Haywood Community College on Wednesday.
“We have people that are moving further and further to the extreme in both parties and the loser is democracy,” he said. “When your only fear is whether you’re going to be primaried, when you go to Raleigh or to Washington, is it in your best interest to compromise” on legislation?
“In a safe district, (candidates) only have to appeal to people that vote in the primary of their party,” said Ross, also a former Superior Court judge. “If they win the primary, they’re essentially guaranteed election.”
Changing the way North Carolina’s districts are drawn has been an issue for years in the legislature, which sets district lines and would have to approve any reform.
The debate has gotten more attention as the General Assembly’s Republican majority and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper argue over whether to hold a special election for legislative seats this November.
The U.S. Supreme Court on June 2 upheld a lower court ruling that found many legislative districts invalid because legislators packed Democrat-leaning African-American voters in a few districts, increasing the odds of Republican victories in the rest.
However, the Supreme Court sent the question of whether to hold an election in 2017 or wait until next year back to the lower court, saying a previous order for a special election did not include a close look at the pros and cons.
The odds of a 2017 special election seem to be declining because of the time election workers need to assign voters to new districts and perform other tasks, although the courts could still order that elections be held under a compressed schedule.
Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, predicted at Wednesday’s event that the legislature will not even begin drawing new districts until the second half of July.
Better tools, worse districts?
There was broad agreement among speakers at the event sponsored by Pinsky’s group, Asheville Buncombe County NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County and Democracy NC, that both parties have engaged in gerrymandering and that the practice has worsened in recent years.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring districts be equal in population created another reason for district lines to deviate from county boundaries.
Then advanced computer technology and data made it easier than ever to manipulate the lines for political advantage, Orr said.
“If you want a district with 53 percent women, 42 percent Republican, no more than 10 percent Methodist … you can draw that,” he said.
Pinsky said an incumbent legislator once had a district line shifted to include his in-laws’ farm in his district. His wife’s parents were aging and he thought there was a chance he might have to move there to take care of them, so he wanted to be sure doing so wouldn’t require him to move out of his legislative district.
In another case, she said, a line was moved to bring a legislator’s aunt into a district because she wanted to be able to vote for him or her.
Where district lines run “becomes a political football in the N.C. General Assembly” as legislative leaders trade favorable consideration of a member’s desires on districts for his or her support on a bill the leadership wants to pass, she said.
Joe Sam Queen, a Waynesville Democrat who served in the state House and Senate, said district lines too often divide areas with common interests, as he says congressional districts do to Western North Carolina.
Most of the region is in the 11th Congressional District represented by Mark Meadows, but much of Asheville is in the 10th, which is represented by Patrick McHenry and runs east almost to Charlotte.
But changing the way lines are drawn “is not the panacea for American politics,” said Chris Cooper, head of the political science department at Western Carolina University.
Changing population trends mean Democrats are increasingly concentrated in urban areas, decreasing the likelihood that districts will be competitive, he said.
He tells his WCU students they can get extra credit for class if they visit West Asheville — which has seen an influx of younger, more progressive residents — and find a Republican. No one has taken him up on his offer yet, Cooper said.
Is change possible?
The state House passed a bill in 2011 to hand much of the work of drawing up districts to a group of legislative staffers not aligned with either party, but the proposal died in the Senate.
The same proposal, pushed by Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and others, has not even gotten a hearing in committee this year and appears dead until at least 2019.
But events elsewhere may revive the idea.
Courts have been reluctant to strike down redistricting plans because they benefit one political party over the other.
However, a case from Wisconsin in which federal judges ruled partisan gerrymandering violated residents’ free speech rights is headed to the Supreme Court.
Some legal experts say the court may use it to set standards that would dramatically restrict gerrymandering.
Pinsky said she pushed Democratic state legislators when they were in charge late last decade to approve redistricting reform like that in the McGrady bill, arguing it would help ensure fair treatment if Republicans gained a majority. The Democrats did not act.
When the GOP took over in 2011, some Republican legislators who had once enthusiastically endorsed the idea changed their tune, she said.
The proposal would give the job of drawing proposed maps to legislative staffers not aligned with either party. They would have to follow state and federal laws and draw districts that are reasonably compact, have little variation in number of residents and ignore previous voting patterns and impacts on incumbents.
The General Assembly would then have to give the plans up or down votes with no chance of amendments. If the district maps didn’t pass, the staffers would try again.
Opponents of the idea say it is impossible to remove partisan considerations from the process and any group appointed to draw maps will have political ties.
Speakers Wednesday said the process would dramatically reduce the chances of political mischief in map drawing and perhaps end the constant litigation over districts drawn by the current method.
A key to the process would be the criteria the law sets for what districts should look like, Orr said. He said the rules would be more important than how the map drawers are chosen.
North Carolina holds the record among the states for the number of redistricting cases that have made it to the Supreme Court, Pinsky said, and there have been more than 40 lawsuits overall challenging North Carolina districts in the past 37 years.
Brian Irving, chairman of the N.C. Libertarian Party, said other public bodies have been able to reduce the influence of politics over the years.
Most local school boards in the state are elected on a nonpartisan basis and operate that way, he said. A federal commission on closing military bases works in a similar fashion as the proposed state redistricting commission, with Congress only able to vote its recommendations up or down.
That has largely ended efforts by congressmen to lobby their colleagues to keep bases in their districts open even though they are no longer needed, he said.
Ross said the consequences of keeping the current system could be dire.
“We can do better and I fear if we don’t, we’ll lose our form of government,” he said
Will there be a 2017 legislative election?
State elections officials have so far not publicly identified a drop dead date after which it would be too late to start preparations for a special election for seats in the General Assembly this year.
But an October 2016 affidavit from the executive director of the State Board of Elections, Kim Westbrook Strach, suggests that given their druthers, officials would like to have at least six months to get ready for a November 2017 special election.
With the general election for municipal offices around the state set for Nov. 7, that six-month period has already passed.
On the other hand, federal judges don’t necessarily have to honor elections officials’ desire for more time, and could shorten some parts of the election process.
A June 2 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court struck down current legislative districts as unconstitutional but did not resolve the question of whether a 2017 special election is needed. A lower court is now considering the issue.
Strach said in an affidavit in the case that after a new district map is drawn, it will take election workers about three weeks to assign each voter to his or her correct district. The state usually allows three weeks for candidates to file, but that part of the process could be shorter, she said.
It takes three weeks for ballots to be prepared and another two weeks for the information to be transferred to voting machines, Strach said.
The state usually allows three weeks after an general election or primary to certify results and state law requires that absentee ballots are available 50 days before an election. Judges would not be bound by that time frame, however.
This year’s schedule for Asheville City Council elections suggests there is some flexibility, although city elections take in a much smaller electorate than legislative races would.
Filing for council seats runs July 7-21. A primary will be held Oct. 10 and the general election will be Nov. 7.
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