The state legislative committee that will undertake redistricting in North Carolina made its way to the mountains Tuesday evening for its only meeting in the region.
Almost 200 people showed up to the campus of Western Carolina University to listen and share comments about the redistricting process. About 50 people spoke during the public comment period.
Kathleen Barnes represented the Transylvania County NAACP. She said she drove two hours to the meeting which she called “a public health risk” identifying that some people in the room were unmasked.
“You set this hearing in a location in the 11th congressional district that is remote and accessible by the public only with great difficulty on a workday at 5pm,” said Barnes.
Barnes added the meeting itself did not inspire hope for fair and equal maps.
Redistricting happens every ten years after the census. During the last round, North Carolina’s Republican-led General Assembly redrew the districts, creating maps that ended up in court for most of the decade. A judge threw those maps out the maps in 2019. This year’s redistricting has been delayed because the 2020 census came out later than usual.
Most of the evening’s speakers came from Buncombe and Henderson Counties. Among those that weren’t was Carolyn Cagle from Jackson County.
"It seems grouping whole counties is the best way to easily and fairly represent voters and help with similar needs within these groupings," said Cagle.
Many of the speakers focused on Congressional District 11. Jane Koenig from Jackson County explains the district which covers 16 and a half counties simply: “It’s a lot of territory for one person to cover. Much less to cover well,” said Koenig.
The district is currently represented by Congressman Madison Cawthorn.
Two candidates running against Cawthorn, Democrats Bo Hess and Katie Dean from Buncombe County both spoke.
Hess said that equitable districts are one of the most important issues.
“Are we indeed a representative democracy if one party can essentially never be voted out of power, or, put another way, if one party can write jurisdictions to their advantage to stay in power?,” said Hess. “If politicians choose their voters instead of the voters choosing their elected representatives, then our system of government is no longer serving the needs of the people.”
Democratic candidate Katie Dean said hiring a third party would be the best way for North Carolina to draw fair maps.
“Gerrymandering and dark money in politics are unraveling our democratic process as we know it and its lead to the extremism that we see today,” said Dean. “The stakes continue to escalate and here in WNC we continue to suffer the consequences of gerrymandering and its weakened critical economic function in our economies with regard of lack of access to broadband, our crumbling infrastructure, access to affordable healthcare and including expanded Medicaid.”
This year’s redistricting process will also add the new congressional district seat based on North Carolina's population growth in the 2020 census.
Jane Yokoyama is from Buncombe County. She was one of many speakers who brought up previous gerrymandered maps that divided UNC Asheville’s college campus.
“Unlike the past, universities and college campuses must be kept in the same district. Likewise counties, Jackson, for example, small cities and towns should not be split into different districts,”said Yokoyama. “Please let us have equal votes, equal voices and equal value.”
Aaron Littlefield, a Jackson County resident who identified himself as a registered Republican and a social studies teacher also advocated for contiguous districts:
“I would suggest a compact district that doesn’t have this former Catamount driving over to App State for political events," said Littlefield.
Republican Senator Chuck Edwards of Henderson County presided over the meeting.
“We have posted the proposed criteria that is very similar to what we used in 2019. I’m confident that we are going to be able to give the people of North Carolina a transparent process similar to the process of 2019 that earned the praise of so many Democrats,” said Edwards.
Republican leaders in the General Assembly say they hope to have maps ready and redistricting done by the end of next month.