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C.S. Hammond and Co., New York

Borders war

Politics | Little-noticed redistricting fights could determine the tilt of political power for the next decade

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C., and WASHINGTON-On a recent sunny Saturday morning, dozens of runners in brightly colored shorts and numbered race bibs crossed the finish line during an early morning 5-K near uptown Charlotte, N.C. The festive scene of live music and free snacks offered a stark contrast to a public hearing unfolding in a classroom at the adjacent community college: In a windowless room with fluorescent lights, 34 gray chairs neatly lined the gray walls and gray carpet, and less than 10 local citizens gathered for a public hearing scheduled to last as long as three hours. The topic: congressional redistricting.

But while the turnout was small and the setting was dull, the implications are huge: The way state legislators here-and in states across the country-redraw district boundaries in response to the 2010 Census could shape political power for at least a decade. For Republicans in North Carolina-one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, where the GOP now controls the state legislature for the first time in nearly a century-playing fair could be one of the biggest challenges of their careers. North Carolina legislators will likely unveil proposed maps within the next month.

"This is the best position the GOP has been in in the modern era of redistricting," said Tim Storey, an expert on redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans hold 26 state legislatures, the most since 1952, when they also held 26. The change in power is particularly striking in the South: In 1990, Republicans didn't control a single Southern chamber, but now they control both chambers of nine state legislatures.

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North Carolina is grabbing national attention because of its burgeoning population and its changing political makeup. The state population grew by 18.5 percent in the last decade, and the number of unaffiliated voters has grown from 6 percent in 1990 to 24 percent now. "North Carolina is a very competitive and volatile state politically right now," said John Rustin, an expert on redistricting at the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, a pro-business think tank. "We're the consummate swing state."

The handful of citizens signed up to speak at the April 30 hearing seemed to understand the implications, and they all had a similar plea for the four members of the redistricting committee on-site: Draw the lines fairly. Seven out of the 11 speakers (including those at three satellite locations via videoconference) asked legislators to protect minority voters during the redistricting process. At least four had another concern: Keeping communities together instead of gerrymandering for political advantage-the kind of tactic Democrats have notoriously leveraged in the state for decades. Now voters can hold legislators more accountable to these demands: Since the last Census, the iPhone was invented, and Texas, for one, has created a mobile application for smartphones, so voters can check proposed maps for where they live. Florida voters can even draw their own maps in an online application and submit them to the legislature.

From a satellite location, one North Carolina speaker described his 12th district home as "an extreme gerrymandering district." The 12th district, which Democrat Mel Watts represents, lies like a piece of spaghetti across the middle of the state, connecting disparate black communities so they make up 45 percent of voters. The district's borders have received Supreme Court scrutiny numerous times. "I would rather that districts are drawn up as communities in localized areas instead of making what is the equivalent to a snake in the middle of the state just so that you can get a voting bloc for one source of representation," the speaker told legislators.

In 1993, the Supreme Court echoed that concern in the case Shaw v. Reno, which addressed North Carolina's districts. "A reapportionment plan that includes in one district individuals who belong to the same race, but who are otherwise widely separated by geographical and political boundaries, and who may have little in common with one another but the color of their skin, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the majority opinion.

In North Carolina, as in the rest of the country, the population is draining from rural areas and moving to cities-which could have the benefit of creating more geographically compact districts. "In the past they were slicing and dicing certain counties to make sure that certain people won elections-and more importantly-that certain parties won elections," said Sen. Bob Rucho, the Republican chairing the Senate redistricting committee, in an interview. "My town of Matthews is split in the middle. But that's a community of interest. Why was it ever divided?" Indeed, for mapping purposes, what is a "community"? John Hood, the president of the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina and an expert on redistricting, said it must be defined by close geography, keeping a district as compact as possible so people living in the same place are represented together.

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