Borders war

"Borders war" Continued...

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

"When you get into 'communities of interest' language, you start getting into weird territory," said Hood. "It could be the town of Apex. It could be people who work in manufacturing. It could be people who share the same religion. . . . It gets into an area where I don't think we want a legal standard applied."

Beth Henry, a retired Charlotte attorney, told the committee she's a Democrat who sometimes supports Republican candidates, and she worries about drawing lines that make some candidates sure winners. Does Henry think the GOP will handle redistricting fairly? "I'm sure they will be tempted-just like obviously in the past the Democrats have used gerrymandering to their benefit," she said. "So it's understandable that that's a big temptation."

North Carolina voters aren't confident Republicans will resist the temptation: A recent poll from the nonpartisan North Carolina Center for Voter Education found that 76 percent of voters from both parties believe that legislators have a conflict of interest in drawing districts themselves. For the last decade, various Republican legislators in North Carolina have introduced measures to reform redistricting, like creating a nonpartisan commission to draw the maps or setting up stricter rules for map drawing. State Democrats, now that they're out of power, are interested in these ideas, but Republicans say there isn't time to pass new redistricting laws and create new maps in time for the next round of primaries.

The 2010 election, so big for Republicans, gave some evidence of gerrymandering in North Carolina. While Republicans won control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, the party only took one congressional seat, which some experts say indicates how gerrymandered congressional districts are in Democrats' favor. Map scrutinizers expect that in a wave election, there should be a "uniform swing" in terms of wins for a party.

"We've never been in charge before. It's going to be different this time," promised Sen. Rucho, who chairs the Senate redistricting committee. Even if it's to your disadvantage? "I'm going to follow the law." Other Republican legislators in North Carolina have promised that they will not gerrymander, whatever that means in practice. There's no firm legal standard for gerry­mandering at the congressional district level, beyond one simple guideline from the Supreme Court: one person, one vote. Each district must have an even population, within a small percentage of variation. In a 2004 case that went to the high court, Georgia had packed Republican districts with more people than Democratic districts, so Democratic voters had more power at the polls than Republicans. The justices ordered a more even distribution of the population.

North Carolina isn't gaining a seat, despite its surge in population, but several congressional districts could change enough to make them more competitive for Republicans, like the currently Democratic 13th District near Raleigh. The state has two districts in which minorities are in the majority, and Hood said Republicans may try to create a third (the state's Hispanic population grew by 111 percent in the last decade). But creating a third minority district, Hood said, would be a "roll of the dice," in terms of unpredictable political and legal fallout.

Southern states' redistricting maps, including North Carolina's, are generally governed by the Voting Rights Act, which is designed to protect minorities' voting rights and subjects new electoral maps to Justice Department approval. Republicans and Democrats tend to interpret the act differently, Hood explained. Republicans believe that if legislators can draw a district that gives African-Americans a majority, for example, legislators should do that. That, in turn, theoretically creates more Republican-friendly districts elsewhere. Democrats believe that it's sufficient to draw districts with a "substantial minority," Hood said, spreading out the minority population in order to make more districts competitive for Democrats.

Twenty years ago, the NAACP supported Republicans' interpretation of the VRA, pushing for majority-black districts instead of spreading the black population out to elect more Democrats. But the organization's position has changed: "They've sort of decided the Democratic Party's fortunes are more important," Hood said. The Justice Department, which will need to approve North Carolina's redistricting plans, tends to side with Democrats' interpretation of the VRA, Hood says. But, he added, "The VRA jurisdiction is just muddy enough to give both sides a rationale for their position."

The potential legal challenges have cast anxiety over the whole process. Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Republican from the Charlotte area, is vice-chair of the House redistricting commission, but she declined an interview out of an abundance of caution for the potential legal challenges to the maps. Rustin noticed this level of caution in the legislative hearings he attended too: Legislators didn't make off-the-cuff remarks, but read from written statements, and a stenographer was present.


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