Can Redistricting Be Nonpartisan?
S omeday, North Carolina Republicans and Democrats may agree on a fair and bipartisan way to do redistricting. Right now, it's looking as if that might happen around the 12th of Never.
In the meantime, the needless, costly and highly partisan legal battles continue, tying up courts that have other things to worry about. And there's no telling where the fight may eventually end up - though a good guess at this point is on the doorstep of the Supreme Court of the United States.
To understand what the fuss is about, take a look at a map of North Carolina congressional districts - or one of our state legislative districts. Either is enough of a jagged jumble to make your average crazy quilt look downright sane by comparison. The whole concept of compact, rational districts that try to honor county and community lines has long ago flown out the window.
Victor Gets the Spoils
The latest version got that way, of course, because the Republicans, having won big in the 2010 elections, set out to systematically redraw the districts in a way to ensure that they would do even better in future elections - at least until the next federal census, at which time the whole game can start all over again.
Though the Democrats weren't much better when they were in the driver's seat, they and civil rights groups can't be blamed for challenging this blatantly partisan redistricting system in court. In the most recent step, the N.C. Supreme Court has now ordered that the plaintiffs be given access to the records of private lawyers who helped GOP leaders draw up the maps. This should produce some interesting evidence.
On another critical issue, however, the court refused to block Justice Paul Newby from participating in the case. Plaintiffs had tried to get him removed on the grounds that some of the groups that helped draw up the district lines also gave money to support Republican Newby's recent re-election campaign.
The latter situation does seem pretty fishy. For example, the Republican State Leadership Committee is said to have been the "chief architect" of the new maps. Yet that same committee also contributed heavily to the campaign of Newby - who is now supposed to be able to render an objective verdict on said maps? Can you spell "conflict"? Bear in mind that with Newby staying in the mix, the court will keep its 4-3 Republican majority. Had he been removed, the panel deciding the case would have been split evenly 3-3.
Needless Delay and Expense
The time required to settle these two secondary issues should give some idea of how long it might take to resolve the big question of the maps themselves. We'll probably be well along toward the 2020 census before this decision finally comes down. Then it will probably head to federal court.
Meanwhile, various racial groups will continue to have their power reduced by being lumped together in fewer districts.
There should be a way to avoid all this expense, bother and delay. There is: The state needs to get on with the business of laying the groundwork for the creation of a nonpartisan redistricting commission.
Such a system wouldn't be perfect, perhaps. But it would be a big improvement over the current approach, which is perfectly awful.
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