Let’s pull the plug on computer-driven redistricting

North Carolina’s contorted history of congressional redistricting

Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.
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Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.

Democracy has no flawless solutions, no foolproof guarantees of perfect fairness. It’s messy. But what unites us as a state and nation is a shared conviction that despite those imperfections, we have an obligation to constantly improve our nearly 250-year grand experiment in self-governance.

No issue better exemplifies this responsibility than gerrymandering. How we draw our voting districts has been a perennial issue since our country’s founding. Who draws those districts and how it is done has enormous consequences for our democracy. What’s starkly clear today is that our current process – rife with partisan gerrymandering – is dangerously broken.

In North Carolina, honest brokers on both sides of the aisle have known we must reform our redistricting process for years. Republican stalwarts like John Hood and former Rep. Skip Stam called for reform when Democrats were in power, and Democrat stalwarts like Tom Ross and former Sen. Margaret Dickson are calling for it now as Republicans hold power.

Today, all four of these leaders are among the many North Carolinians working together for change. And thanks to court challenges, close divisions in our state’s politics, and this genuinely bipartisan coalition of North Carolinians acting in good faith, redistricting reform is closer than ever to becoming a reality. This state knows we must act; the question is how we do so together.

North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform (NC4RR) is proud to be leading this bipartisan coalition for change. Our approach is based on a simple fact: big data has caused big problems for democracy.

Modern gerrymandering relies on powerful computer software that sorts voters based on partisanship. By banning the use of partisan-identifying data – data sets that allow algorithms to predict how a person will vote, and thereby inform how voting districts are drawn – we can radically limit partisan gerrymandering.

That’s what NC4RR’s proposal, known as the Fairness and Integrity in Redistricting (FAIR) Act or HB 140, would do by setting strict limits on the data that can be used by computer programs when lawmakers draw voting districts. Those limits would be combined with strong transparency requirements, including disclosing all of the data and methodology that is used in the process to draw voting districts, before any new map is introduced in the General Assembly. All of these rules would go into the state’s constitution – a critical step to ensure this bipartisan reform is enshrined in our state’s founding document, thereby ensuring that future legislatures uphold their obligation to create voting districts that reflect our state.

The coalition of groups pushing for some type of redistricting reform is large, and some advocates favor a different approach. These advocates believe that the task of drawing voting districts should be given to a commission designed to be objective and independent.

It’s a worthy idea. In fact, the rules and transparency requirements in NC4RR’s proposal are designed to work in concert with an independent commission if the legislature ever decides to create one. After all, commissions need to be kept in check just like lawmakers do.

While an independent commission may be a good idea in theory, it proves to be difficult in practice. In the last 30 years, 43 independent commission proposals have been introduced in the North Carolina legislature. None of them have ever been made into law. In fact, no state legislature has ever voluntarily passed independent commission legislation. It has only been accomplished through citizen-led ballot initiatives, an option not available under North Carolina’s constitution.

Then there’s the thorny question of what “independent” means. On the national stage, traditionally independent institutions like the United States Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve are seen as being increasingly partisan. It’s a risky bet to believe we can reverse this trend in an intensely polarized state like North Carolina and create a redistricting commission that’s independent in both reality and perception. Taking the politics out of an inherently political process is likely to prove harder than anticipated.

That’s why a bipartisan group of political, religious, and business leaders are backing NC4RR’s feasible, effective approach. Instead of changing who draws our voting districts, we can limit the tools and methods used, adding sunlight and guardrails to a process that desperately needs both.

Voters deserve districts they can understand. They deserve representatives who want to win elections on the merits, not by algorithmic trickery.

Our state has a historic opportunity to show that good government can be good politics. By supporting the FAIR Act, we can ensure that North Carolinians decide their own future.

Mary Wills Bode is the Executive Director of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform