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Princeton Gerrymandering Project

Update - December 26, 2019

Over the last two years, legislatures in multiple states have proposed reforms to how districts are drawn. North Carolina, hotbed of gerrymandering, has no fewer than seven reform bills. But some of them do much more than others to prevent future offenses. Which ones are the best?
When legislatures preserve their line-drawing power, they allow a feedback loop in which they can draw themselves into power indefinitely. The key to true reform is breaking that cycle of self-dealing. To the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, real reform has three hallmarks: independent commissions, mechanisms for public input, and criteria for fairness.
Chart by Aylett Colston
As an example, let’s look at North Carolina’s proposed constitutional amendment H140, which the General Assembly is considering. Its sponsors, which include educator Tom Ross and conservative activist Art Pope, say that H140 advocates for transparency, nonpartisan district design, and the creation of "common sense" districts. However, H140 lacks the hallmarks we’ve listed. H140 creates a “Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission,” but unlike true independent commissions like Iowa’s or California’s, this commission has no power. It would provide information (if requested) to the Legislative Services Office, which would have authority to draw maps and whose director, currently Paul Coble, is appointed by the General Assembly. After the LSO submits its maps, ultimate approval power lies with the General Assembly - exactly as is the case now.
Under H140, the commission lacks not only power, it also lacks genuine independence. Four of the five commissioners would be chosen by Democratic and Republican party leaders from registered North Carolina voters. The four commissioners would then elect a fifth commissioner. Commissionership is barred to public officeholders or political party officials, their relatives, or employees. But it would still allow lobbyists, paid employees of a political campaigns, and big campaign donors. 

H140 turns public comment into a rushed process. The Commission would hold three public hearings - after the LSO has already submitted a map to the General Assembly in bill form. The bill mandates three public hearings and dissemination of methodology and data, and says that data would only be released after the plan has already been delivered to the General Assembly. (During the recent North Carolina redraw, an online log recorded many comments expressing frustration with the level of citizen access. Nor was there a provision for digitally downloading draft maps - or contributing information about communities.) All public analysis and comment must take place within 14 days of the bill’s submission, when the Commission must submit a summary of the public hearings to the General Assembly.

Finally, H140 provides few criteria to ensure fairness. Although H140 does prohibit line-drawers from “augmenting or diluting the voting strength of a language or racial minority group” and limits the use of demographic data in drawing districts, it also makes no mention of communities of interest in redistricting, a standard followed by over twenty other states. Instead, the bill emphasizes whole counties. But county lines are not a sufficient measure of fairness. For example, the Sandhills region of North Carolina, a cohesive community of interest, covers multiple counties - and was split in the recent redrawing of the Congressional map.
Better reforms have been introduced and are waiting for consideration. H69, which went before the House Redistricting Committee on October 24, 2019, would give line-drawing power to an independent commission, whose maps would be confirmed by the General Assembly. And the most comprehensive bill, H827, the NC Citizens Redistricting Commission bill, has not been brought up at all. H827 would appoint independent commissioners, require considerable public input, and mandate the use of criteria for fairness. It deserves a hearing.

We invite Carolinians to keep working for fair districts. We’re developing tools to help, and we want to form partnerships in the Tar Heel State. We hope you’ll be in touch. Happy Holidays!
 
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