Earlier this month, a panel of superior court judges told North Carolina lawmakers they needed to produce new state legislative maps that were free of partisan gerrymandering. It was a test — above all, whether our elected representatives could draw districts that were truly representative. But it was also a bigger challenge. Could the process, along with the maps, be free of political taint?
So far, we’re failing.
In the 14 days since the court’s ruling, here’s some of what’s happened:
Republicans, including House Speaker Tim Moore, have accused Democrats of working on district maps outside the public view, a possible violation of the judges’ orders.
Democrats have accused Republicans of crafting gerrymandered districts in the southeast corner of the state — also a potential violation of the ruling.
Both Democrats and Republicans have spent time huddling over maps, hoping to find ways to subtly protect their own jobs. At least one lawmaker, Republican Sen. John Alexander of Raleigh, was not quite as subtle. Last week, he entered the map war room and apparently attempted to persuade a staffer to redraw his suddenly more vulnerable district.
The people of North Carolina haven’t done a whole lot better. At a public hearing called by the Senate on Monday, everyday North Carolinians showed that they, too, didn’t quite get the judges’ point. Supporters of Republicans spoke up against redistricting reform, in part because it would take away GOP seats, but also because Democrats gerrymandered before and the Republicans should get a turn. Meanwhile, both Republicans and Democrats in Columbus County showed up to oppose the maps, including two deputies sent by the sheriff to make the case for their favored lawmaker.
To be clear, when the court eventually rules on the product of these House and Senate map deliberations, they likely will be focusing on the fairness of the districts, not whether the road to get there was free of partisan potholes. While these maps are certainly an improvement over the gerrymandered maps they might replace, the new maps still face questions about the intentional protection of incumbents, and they appear to rely too much on the unconstitutional maps in place.
Mostly, though, the past two weeks have affirmed a larger truth — that even with looming warnings from the court about partisanship, it’s near impossible to keep politics from bleeding into maps. Lawmakers, regardless of party, will often operate in their self-interest, and voters will support them. It’s what Democrats and Republicans have done for decades. It’s what happened once again this month.
It’s why Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from Charlotte, said that although he was generally satisfied with the maps his chamber produced, he’ll vote against them. “These are the fairest maps, and this was the fairest process, in North Carolina in my lifetime,” Jackson said. But, he said: “Independent redistricting would look just like the process we just went through, except it wouldn’t be politicians doing it.”
We agree, and we believe the court should wrest the maps from the hands of lawmakers and either give the task to a special master or, if there’s time before 2020, allow lawmakers to pursue an independent commission that would produce N.C. districts not colored by partisanship and self-interest. Lawmakers have had their chance, for decades and again this month. They’ve failed.