Revamp redistricting

The Supreme Court building in Washington, March 7, 2016. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times)
The Supreme Court building in Washington, March 7, 2016. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times) NYT

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Monday that congressional district maps drawn by the North Carolina legislature in 2011 are unconstitutional was a welcome affirmation of a position we have supported all along.

The decision has little immediate impact, since voters elected representatives last November based on new maps drawn up after an appeals court rejected two of the state’s 13 districts as racially gerrymandered. It was that appeals court ruling the Supreme Court upheld by a 5-3 vote.

But the redrawn districts have been legally challenged, too, and it seems probable the courts may reject the new ones on the same grounds.

“We already have new congressional districts in North Carolina,” Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, noted after Monday’s decision. “What I find most significant is that the legislature made the same legal mistake and used race the same way in drawing the state’s House and Senate districts. This opinion, with Justice (Clarence) Thomas joining the majority, must mean those districts are unconstitutional.”

Regardless of the outcome of the challenges to those districts, this long, costly and confusing process should suggest a remedy that many in this state have been pursuing for some time. That is to remove redistricting as much as possible from the partisan political process.

Tom Ross, the former president of the University of North Carolina system who now works with a nonprofit trying to restore trust in government, told The News & Observer’s Anne Blythe Monday that political gerrymandering has helped to erode that trust and that the solution is to amend our state constitution to establish an independent redistricting process.

While efforts at that have repeatedly stalled in the General Assembly, there is support across the political spectrum. When the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform held a press conference to push for such a change at the opening of this year’s legislative session, speakers included representatives from the right-leaning John Locke Foundation and left-leaning Common Cause.

"Regardless of the outcome of the current legal disputes, North Carolina needs a new process for drawing its election maps," said Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. "Representative government is based on the key principle that voters must retain ultimate sovereignty. In other words, voters must choose their elected leaders, not the other way around."

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, pointed out reasons both parties should support reform.

"No party is guaranteed to be in power forever," Phillips said. "So it’s in everyone’s best interest for North Carolina to create a new redistricting process that provides fair representation for both parties."

We hope Monday’s court ruling helps propel agreement on the need to revamp our redistricting process.