The General Assembly in the coming weeks will take up the task again of drawing districts for the state House and Senate, as well as boundaries for the state’s congressional representation.

The process is an inherently political one, and it always has been. When Democrats controlled the legislature, their redistricting efforts favored their party. With Republicans now going on a full 10 years in firm control in Raleigh, the latest decennial process almost certainly will favor Republicans.

What’s also certain is that Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups will sue over the new districts’ validity. It’s some kind of perverse Old North State tradition, this business of suing over redistricting. Courts have a long history of overturning North Carolina’s legislative and congressional maps going back to the 1980s.

“Insanity,” Albert Einstein once said, “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Doing nothing, however, isn’t an option. The new population figures revealed by last year’s U.S. census mandate we reapportion our representation for fairness — that is, fairness in population, at least. What that population looks like, how it votes and how those district boundaries squiggle to ensure the desired political effect — well, that’s the real sought-after impact.

We’re no Einsteins, but surely there’s a way to break our endless cycle of drawing districts, getting sued, losing, drawing new districts …

A Reasonable Start

The redistricting process isn’t an entirely closed affair. Anyone can submit comments and even their own plan.

The General Assembly has also spent the last couple of weeks holding hearings across the state for public comment. Granted, there have been no specific maps that people can comment on or take objection to, but they have been able to offer general commentary. And the meetings have mostly occurred in the middle of the day during work hours, when fewer people may be likely able to attend.

To the credit of senior lawmakers, they have promised similar levels of transparency as a court required of them two years ago. In 2019, a court order forced Republican lawmakers to engage in unprecedented transparency when redrawing maps that the court had just ruled unconstitutional.

Lawmakers have also adopted rules that prohibit using racial demographic and prior election data to draw districts. That’s both good and bad. It prevents packing districts with reliable voters of a particular party, but it could also dilute minority voting strengths. And lawmakers can still take into account where current lawmakers live, meaning lines can be drawn to favor — or hurt — certain legislators, almost ensuring that winnable districts will be drawn for majority-party incumbents.

A Better Way Forward

Guidelines are a start. But to have a decent shot at fairness, those guidelines would dictate that the redistricting process not include voting records; demographic details (except race); or incumbent residences. Districts should be made up of contiguous counties, keeping counties whole where possible.

An even better way forward in the future would be to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2022 asking voters if the state should have nonpartisan rules for drawing districts.

If the amendment were approved, legislative staff would create a transparent, fully open process that would keep districts compact and fair without regard to political data and incumbency. The legislature still gets to draw them but without all the chicanery. The guidelines would ensure logical and competitive districts. “Safe” districts for one party could become winnable for anyone.

We don’t really care who draws the lines — an independent commission has its own problems — but it’s critical that whoever draws those lines have commonsense rules everyone can agree upon. Then, let the marketplace of ideas work it out.

We’ve long had a system of lawmakers choosing their voters, and we’ve seen how that serves us. It polarizes our politics, generates an endless stream of litigation and locks us in a loop of insanity.

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(2) comments

Dwight Kidd

Redistricting worked fine for over one hundred years with Democrats in control, then all of a sudden in 2010 when Republicans won using district lines by Democrats it has been nothing but griping, litigation and calling for redistricting REPAIR. If the Democrats want to draw district lines do like the Republicans did, WIN.

Conrad Meyer

True statement Dwight. But the dems drink the hateraid every day so they have to complain about something.

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