If you are looking for confirmation that the current system of drawing districts for Congress and the General Assembly is ridiculously broken, legislative leaders unwittingly provided it this week with their bizarre and bitter reaction to congressional maps drawn as an exercise by a bipartisan panel of retired judges.
The idea was to see what would happen if politics was not part of the redistricting process, if the goal was to create rational districts that make sense for voters instead of protecting politicians in one political party or the other.
The exercise was a joint project between Common Cause North Carolina and Duke University and brought together 10 retired judges, five Democrats and five Republicans, to spend several months coming up with districts that complied with the Voting Rights Act but did not take party registration or residency of incumbents into account.
The result released at a news conference Monday was a map of compact districts that voters could understand. There were no lines snaking through multiple counties and jumping across highways to grab voters here and there to make sure a district was more favorable to Democrats or to pack as many African-Americans into as few districts as possible to maximize Republican majorities elsewhere in the state.
The map makes sense. And it turns out it with current voting patterns it would likely result in the election of six Republicans and four Democrats to Congress with three districts up for grabs as toss-ups.
That’s not a surprise since North Carolina is considered one of the most evenly divided states in the country, with President Obama narrowly carrying the state in 2008 and Republican Mitt Romney narrowly winning in 2012.
The maps drawn by Republican legislative leaders in 2011 created 10 Republican congressional seats and only three that usually elect Democrats. Federal courts threw out the districts earlier this year saying that lawmakers unconstitutionally packed African-American voters into a handful of districts.
When lawmakers redrew the plans, legislative leaders openly boasted that their goal was to draw at least 10 Republican districts and they did. That prompted a lawsuit by Common Cause challenging the blatantly gerrymandered maps.
Federal courts also recently threw out the legislative districts drawn in 2011 but allowed this year’s election to proceed using the unconstitutional plan since there wasn’t time to redraw them before November.
With all that as a backdrop, the release of the bipartisan common sense congressional map was big news in Raleigh.
But Republican legislative leaders were not only less than thrilled with the cleaner non-gerrymandered map, they seemed angry and bitter about the whole exercise.
Senator Bob Rucho and Rep. David Lewis, the chairs of the committees that drew the 2011 gerrymandered maps, issued a joint statement calling the bipartisan process to develop the model maps a charade and accused Common Cause of wanting to elect more Democrats.
Lewis and Rucho also bizarrely said it was a media stunt that violated the state constitution’s delegation of the responsibility for redistricting to the General Assembly.
The partisan charge makes no sense. The panel that came up with the model districts was evenly split between Democratic and Republican judges who did not take politics into account when putting the maps together.
The goal wasn’t to elect more Democrats. The goal was to draw a better and fairer map. As to the bizarre charge that the process somehow violated the state constitution, it was simply an exercise to show what independently drawn maps would look like.
And Rep. Lewis in particular should understand that. Lewis was a primary sponsor of legislation that passed the House in 2011 to set up an independent redistricting process very similar to one used in the model process run by Duke and Common Cause.
Rucho is among the large group of current Senate leaders who have also sponsored legislation in the past calling for independent redistricting.
Rucho has also frequently claimed in the last few years that the districts lawmakers drew were fair and legal.
No one could look at the maps and say with a straight face that they were fair, giving Republicans huge advantages in an evenly divided state. And the courts have now said that both the plans drawn in 2011 were not legal.
It’s past time to try something new, to draw the districts with the voters in mind, not just the politicians.
That’s what the Duke/Common Cause project did and the results speak for themselves. The bipartisan map would mean a fairer election with voters actually deciding who represents them in Raleigh and Washington.
Surely Lewis and Rucho understand that. It’s called democracy. And they used to be for it.
Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.