Wednesday, May 20, 2009

North Carolina Redistricting Experts Ask: Is There A Better Way

Recent rulings by the North Carolina and U.S. Supreme Courts that knocked out a House redistricting plan in Pender County probably won’t lead state lawmakers to unravel other legislative districts, a panel convened by the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law said this week. Instead, the ruling – which told legislators they were wrong to split the rural southeastern county into two House districts – will influence the redrawing of districts after the 2010 Census, panelists said.

Justice Bob Orr (retired), who directs the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, convened the panel in light of North Carolina’s long history of contentious litigation over redistricting. During the discussion, the first in a series dubbed “Constitutional Conversations,” panelists explored the recent court rulings striking down aspects of the current redistricting plan and discussed whether a better redistricting process was possible.

The U.S. Supreme Court in March affirmed a previous North Carolina Supreme Court decision that sided with the Pender County plaintiffs, who challenged the plan dividing the county. The 5-4 decision was the latest in a number of critical rulings on the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits lawmakers from diluting the voting power of minorities when they draw election districts.

Legislators are likely to vote next week on a plan to redraw the Pender districts, Gerry Cohen, the General Assembly’s director of legislative drafting, told those gathered for the panel discussion Thursday.

Both Supreme Courts said lawmakers stretched beyond the requirements of the Voting Rights Act by dividing the county to create a majority-minority district with 39 percent African-American voters. The Voting Rights Act, the courts said, doesn’t require lawmakers to set up “majority-minority” districts in which minorities are less than a true “majority” of the electorate in that district.

Since the state divided Pender County without a legal need to do so, lawmakers were ruled to have violated a previous N.C. Supreme Court mandate which stated that the North Carolina constitution prohibited the General Assembly from drawing legislative districts that crossed county lines unless required by federal law.

Some legislators have suggested that the ruling means the General Assembly should redraw other districts in addition to district 18, as well. The N.C. Supreme Court specifically ruled that “other districts” should also be re-drawn to comply with the North Carolina Constitution.

But Pender County Attorney Trey Thurman, who successfully argued his county’s case before the Supreme Court, said lawmakers are not likely to go that far; the next round of redistricting is only two years away.

But as the 2011 redistricting approaches, a crucial issue will be whether the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a part of the Voting Rights Act known as Section 5, said Anita Earls, director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. The section requires states that practiced discrimination in the past to get federal preclearance when they alter voting rules, to make sure the changes don’t weaken minority voting rights.

If the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5, she said, state lawmakers could pass North Carolina’s own version of the requirement and ban legislative districts that lead to “retrogression” of minority voting strength. But such a new law wouldn’t likely allow lawmakers the district-drawing flexibility they enjoyed under previous federal law; unlike federal laws, state laws do not trump conflicting provisions in the state constitution. District lines would have to follow county lines more closely.

Meanwhile, the Pender decision could affect local elections by giving local officials a freer hand in drawing districts for county commissioners and school boards, said Bob Joyce, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government.

Hanging over the panel discussion was frustration over the highly politicized process of redistricting, which allows lawmakers to manipulate district lines to ensure their own re-election. As Thurman put it, the Pender case was about “voters choosing legislators instead of legislators choosing voters.”

Redistricting expert Thomas Farr, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins, said the redistricting process fuels partisanship. “There’s an inherent conflict in allowing people running for election to draw up their own districts,” he said.

In a keynote speech, Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, called for an independent citizens’ commission to take charge of election districts and end a system in which “politics trumps everything.”

Phillips argued that the redistricting process has made elections less competitive. The current system “is not healthy for our democracy,” he said. “When an elected official, year in and year out, has no viable opposition, the people lose out.”

Having districts drawn by an independent commission, he said, would mean fewer lawsuits over redistricting and more voter confidence in the political system. Phillips conceded that legislators aren’t eager to relinquish their redistricting power, but he urged advocacy groups in favor of reform to build coalitions and press forward.

“None of us should quit talking about it,” he said.

Written by Jason Kay
May 12, 2009
from the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law CLICKHERE
with permission to post
photos above are of the new house map and the second picture is the map of the senate in North Carolina
There will be a lot of talk about redistricting in the next few years in the state of North Carolina and TRIADWATCH will try to be on top of this issue for the residents of the Triad.

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