An exercise to draw North Carolina's congressional boundaries while bypassing political data hopefully will increase interest in "nonpartisan" redistricting and avoid extensive future litigation seen for decades over challenged maps, former state jurists said Monday.
Former state Supreme Court chief justices and other judges from both parties unveiled the districts they drew for North Carolina's 13 seats in the U.S. House using basic population numbers and other guidelines laid out in proposed legislation.
But the judges didn't look at voter registration and election results, which are almost always used by North Carolina state lawmakers when they draw districts for Congress and the legislature based on census data every 10 years.
The result, according to organizers of the demonstration map, is geographically compact districts that still created three toss-up seats politically. Ten of the seats on the current map drawn by GOP legislators and used this November are now held by Republicans and aren't likely to be won by Democrats this fall.
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Critics of traditional redistricting methods say it's in the interest of the majority party — Democrats or Republicans — to create noncompetitive districts.
"We want people to understand that there is another way and that this can be done fairly and it can be done in a way that doesn't take into account party politics," said Tom Ross, the former University of North Carolina system president now working at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. The Sanford school and Common Cause North Carolina helped organize the mapping project.
In the demonstration map, the group said voters in six districts would likely elect Republicans and four would likely elect Democrats.
Redistricting maps drawn by the North Carolina legislature have routinely been met with lawsuits. Maps approved in 2011 have been struck down by courts just this year following five years of litigation accusing mapmakers of racial gerrymandering for partisan gain.
Congressional races for the March 15 primary were delayed until June because maps had to be redrawn in February. Legislative maps were overturned just this month and may have to be redrawn next year. The whole process begins again in 2021.
"People are getting tired of having elections that don't count because the map that they were voting under is declared unconstitutional," said Rhoda Billings, the chief justice in the mid-1980s, appointed by Republican Gov. Jim Martin.
The House passed in 2011 a bill creating a five-member redistricting commission that essentially followed the same rules as the judges, except that any maps would still need legislative approval. Similar commissions have not been well received in the Senate.
Current redistricting leaders at the legislature blasted Monday's project as a "charade" with a map that was unconstitutional. They pointed out the national Common Cause organization sued them three weeks ago to have the state's latest congressional map declared an illegal partisan gerrymander.
"Common Cause's only problem is that (the current map) doesn't elect enough Democrats," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, in a release.
Billings and former Chief Justice Henry Frye, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, shared duties of leading the panel of five former chief justices and five other judges. Ross advised the panel.
The panelists were split into two groups and created draft maps. A final map was completed earlier this month, after considerations with its compliance with the U.S. Voting Rights Act.