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Gerrymandering reform advocates cautiously optimistic, despite GOP keeping control in N.C.

Gerrymandering reform advocates cautiously optimistic, despite GOP keeping control in N.C.

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One of the reasons Democrats around the state and nation poured millions of dollars into efforts this year to flip control of the North Carolina legislature was a big prize: control over the next decade of redistricting.

But despite their large fundraising numbers, Democrats did not gain back control of either legislative chamber. In fact, they will actually end up losing seats in the N.C. House of Representatives as long as the current unofficial election results hold up.

That puts Republicans in a strong position to give themselves a future boost by drawing new political districts that will be used in the 2022, 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030 elections for both the state legislature and congress.

Every state in the U.S. is required to redraw its political maps every 10 years, after each census. And unless a court orders the maps to be redrawn, that's it — they can't be drawn again until after the next Census is done.

Bob Phillips, head of Common Cause North Carolina, an anti-gerrymandering group, said that's a strong incentive for the party in power to keep things the way they are. Few politicians want to give up power.

"Typically the majority party is not interested in engaging in any type of meaningful reform," he said. "And that's Democrats when they're in charge, or Republicans when they're in charge."

Democrats had promised voters this year that if they won a majority they would institute reforms. Many supported independent commissions that draw maps without politicians being involved, like other states have done.

But after last week's general election, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden said to a local media outlet that won't be happening next year. He said people should expect to see legislators continuing to draw the maps, not independent commissions.

"Where we've seen these commissions in other states, they end up being populated by folks who are partisans of one sort or the other," Berger said. "So I think if you're going to have folks who are partisans, they at least ought to be elected by the people of the state."

Smaller reforms

Phillips, whose group successfully sued last year to force Republican lawmakers to redraw the maps ahead of the 2020 elections, said he hopes to keep talking with Berger and other GOP leaders about ways they can improve the process and hopefully avoid yet another legal battle next year.

"No one really likes the protracted lawsuits, but that has been really the only vehicle we've had to get the gerrymandered districts tossed," Phillips said.  

After the lawsuits last year, state courts ordered the legislature to draw new maps under a different set of rules. Instead of being done in a secretive backroom, the process had to be out in public — and without using partisan political data.

It was the most transparent redistricting process in North Carolina history. Phillips said he hopes Republicans not only use that same process next year, even without a court order, but build on it.

"It's not perfect, but it's better than what we had," he said.

And it's not just outside groups like Common Cause advocating for change. Over the last several years, Democratic lawmakers — plus a few Republicans — have sponsored numerous redistricting reform bills at the state legislature.

One of those reform bills in 2019 was so popular that more than half of the members of the N.C. House signed on as co-sponsors, virtually guaranteeing it would pass at least one chamber. However, it did not, since GOP leaders never allowed it to come up for a vote.

That redistricting reform bill, stuck in committee purgatory, was HB 140 or the FAIR Act. In addition to its broad bipartisan support at the legislature it was also backed by the group North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, which boasts numerous prominent political insiders from both parties on its board of directors.

Mary Wills Bode, the group's former executive director, said in an interview they realize they might not be able to get all the reforms they had hoped for in the next few months before redistricting begins again. But they believe Republican lawmakers are willing to hear suggestions for improving transparency and making the process less political.

"We're very clear-eyed about what's practical, and what's an improvement," she said. "We've been able to have constructive discussions with folks on both sides of the aisle."

Bode noted that the FAIR Act, if it had passed, would have let voters decide on a constitutional amendment for redistricting reform. Although it didn't move forward here, Virginia did pass a similar bill, she said.

"It can be done," she said. "There's no reason North Carolina can't do it."

Fighting in court

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group run by President Barack Obama's former attorney general Eric Holder, helped fund last year's successful lawsuits against the Republican-drawn maps here in North Carolina. And in the elections this year the group's PAC spent over $1.5 million more on legislative races here, trying to help Democrats flip one or both chambers of the North Carolina legislature.

Patrick Rodenbush, the group's communications director, posted a long thread on Twitter late last week in which he said that despite Democrats' failure to flip the legislature in North Carolina and other states this year, their group is still planning to stay involved in reform efforts — or lawsuits — during the upcoming round of redistricting.

He said that compared to the last round of redistricting in 2011, there's stronger grassroots support to put pressure on politicians this year — and there's always the possibility of more lawsuits if all else fails.

"We still have tools in the box we can use moving forward," he wrote. 

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court shot down a lawsuit challenging North Carolina's maps as being unconstitutional. But a state court found differently and ordered maps here the be redrawn ahead of the 2020 elections.

Republicans chose not to appeal their loss to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which at the time had a 6-1 Democratic majority. By the time the new maps are drawn next year, it's already clear the state's highest court will be slightly more Republican. However, Democrats will still have a majority on the court until at least 2023, and possibly longer.

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