Politics & Government

Are Democrats backing away from a plan to limit gerrymandering in North Carolina?

Anti-gerrymandering advocates rolled out a plan earlier this year to change the North Carolina constitution to make the state’s redistricting process less political. When they did, they gained widespread bipartisan support at the legislature.

But now that Democrats have won a high-profile lawsuit over the state’s political lines, with a court requiring new maps to be drawn that are less skewed in favor of Republicans, some Democrats have begun speaking out against the proposed reform, saying they want more.

The court ruling came out Tuesday. On Wednesday, former US Attorney General Eric Holder — who served under former Democratic President Barack Obama and now leads an anti-gerrymandering group — announced that he opposes the proposal to change the NC constitution to enact redistricting reform.

Holder said HB 140, also known as the FAIR Act, doesn’t go far enough.

“I have a great deal of reservations about North Carolina’s HB 140 and believe that the North Carolina legislature should take a harder look at the details before moving forward with it,” Holder said in a press release. “The current proposal does little to improve the status quo and falls short in providing North Carolinians with the transparency, voter protection, and fair representation that they deserve. We can do more, and we should.”

Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville — who is one of the bill’s lead sponsors and who has fought for years against his own party’s reluctance to embrace redistricting reform — sees a silver lining in Holder’s critique.

“The fact that I’ve got the former U.S. attorney general attacking my bill tells me it must be viable,” McGrady said in an interview.

The FAIR Act would not create an independent redistricting commission, like some other states use. It would allow the state legislature to retain control over the drawing of the maps, but it would add some extra layers of oversight to the process and institute rules banning politicians from protecting incumbents when drawing new maps. It would also ban them from using any sort of demographic or political data like people’s voting history.

Mary Wills Bode, executive director of the bipartisan group North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, supports the FAIR Act but said her group is open to other proposals. With the court ruling now in place and the 2020 elections fast approaching, she said, the legislature needs to act with urgency — before the next round of redistricting in 2021.

“This is a real opportunity for North Carolina to show ourselves, and the rest of the country, that we can do something in a very bipartisan, positive way to fix a very complicated, important problem,” Bode said in an interview.

McGrady said he’s not too worried about Holder’s stance scaring off Democrats at the state legislature. The No. 2 Democrat in the House, Chatham County Rep. Robert Reives, is one of the bill’s lead sponsors and spoke at a press conference supporting reform in February. And numerous other Democrats, as well as Republicans, are co-sponsors.

Some Democrats at the legislature, however, have begun echoing Holder’s concerns that the proposed amendment may not go far enough.

Guilford County Rep. Pricey Harrison is one of the few Democrats on the House Redistricting Committee, which will need to approve the FAIR Act before it could potentially be heard for a vote on the House floor. She tweeted Thursday that “I share Eric Holder’s concerns. HB 140 is not the way N.C. should undertake redistricting reform — too many concerns and it sure doesn’t belong in our constitution.”

McGrady, for his part, has long said he’s open to debating changes if that helps something pass.

He reiterated that on Thursday, pointing out that the FAIR Act isn’t even the only redistricting reform bill he filed this year. He’s also behind HB 69, which wouldn’t change the constitution and would handle the details of reform differently.

“I never expect legislation that gets introduced to end up in the exact same form,” McGrady said. “What I was trying to do with these two bills was give leadership some options, give them something to work on.”

Bode agreed, saying her group’s members “are for reform in whatever way it can get passed. ... We can’t afford to not bring meaningful change to this process.”

There’s also a third redistricting reform bill, SB 641, but it has only Democratic sponsors and is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled legislature.

More than half of the NC House of Representatives’ 120 members co-sponsored both of the reform bills that McGrady filed in February.

But even though rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties appear to support reform, Republican leaders have not allowed any bills to come up for a vote. McGrady said he has had several meetings with top legislative leaders about it in recent months, which is a better reception than he’s gotten in past years.

He said while the court ruling Tuesday strikes down the current maps, it doesn’t change the rules for the long term. And in 2021, under current law, whichever political party wins control of the General Assembly in 2020 will be in charge of drawing new maps that will last until 2031 — unless they fall to some future legal challenge.

McGrady — who isn’t running for re-election in 2020 — said there’s political uncertainty about which side will win next year, and he hopes that drives both sides to realize it’s a smart bet to simply take politics out of the equation altogether.

“Whoever is in charge is going to game the system, unless we change,” he said.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.