HB 69 Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission

At first glance, HB69 Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission seemed like a good bill, although far from perfect. After reading through it, now it appears further from perfect than I realized.

The N.C. League of Women Voters published a white paper last year, “Emerging Alternatives for Reasonable Redistricting Reform,” in which they outlined five basic principles for a redistricting commission. They are:

1. Include the legislature in the process, such as naming some of the commissioners.

2. Include citizens and/or impartial experts as commission members.

3. Set strict rules for the commission’s work that: applies traditional redistricting standards (compact, contiguous, keep local government units and communities of interest whole), does not allow the use of partisan data or partisan objectives, and uses voting rules that require bipartisan support for the maps.

4. Provide for extensive citizen participation and transparency.

5. Make the maps final on the commission’s vote.

I endorsed these principles when running for NC Senate 16. They appealed to me because they recognized political reality. To get anything done, a reform plan must include a role for the legislative leaders. Unfortunately, HB69 gives them too much of a role.

Here is a summary of the bill, compiled by Common Cause, with my notations and comments.

  • An eleven-person commission will be made up of voters nominated by legislative leaders. That is the Senate President Pro Tem and minority leader, and the House Speaker and minority leader. The bill calls them the “selecting authorities.” The LWV white paper refers to them as “the four corners.”
  • The commission will have four members from each of both major parties (as the bill puts it, the party with the highest number of registered voters, and the party with the second highest number of registered voters) as well as three voters not affiliated with either major party. This allows someone registered in the Libertarian, Green or Constitution party to be nominated.
  • The four legislative leaders responsible for appointing the commissioners shall have the goal of representing the state’s racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity.
  • The commission will hire staff to assist them, hold public hearings both before and after the drawing of the maps, and create the maps in a transparent public process.
  • The commission is to seek public input, by holding public hearings and permitting the submission of proposed maps online and by mail. They must hold at least 21 public hearings before writing a plan and 10 after writing it.
  • The commission’s task is to draw districts that will be compact, contiguous, and abide by state and federal law. They can’t consider political factors, including voter registration, previous election results, or incumbents’ addresses, except where needed to comply with state and federal law.
  • Once the commission completes and approves a redistricting plan, the plan will be sent to the General Assembly, which will vote on the maps without altering them. No amendments, in other words. More on that later.
  • The process will outline a schedule to provide the General Assembly with proposed maps as quickly as possible.

To these, I will add these points. While it’s a nonpartisan commission, because it includes members not affiliated with the two largest parties, political party officials will nominate all the members. However, there are mitigating factors:

  • The state auditor will actually choose commission members using a random selection process using separate lists of nominees. Random selection of commission members from a very large list of nominees could lessen partisan leader influence.
  • There’s nothing preventing the legislative leaders from including impartial experts among their nominees.
  • Commissioners cannot have held an elective office, been a candidate, served as a paid worker or consultant to a political campaign, been a leader of a political party, or served on any state board or commission within five years prior to appointment. They’re also prohibited from serving in a political party or campaign position or being appointed to a state board or commission for five years after serving.
  • Eight members must approve a plan, but at least two “yes” votes must come from each group of members. That’s two each from the parties and two from the non-affiliated.

The major fault in the bill is that the General Assembly gets to vote on the plan, even though it’s a simple up-or-down vote. This leaves the door open to majority party shenanigans. If the legislature rejects the first plan, the commission submits a second. This plan must address the legislator’s objections. But the legislators can also reject that second plan. And when the commission submits the third plan, they legislature can amend it.

It’s possible public support for a plan will be so great it will be difficult for the majority party to reject it. It’s possible, but given the history of gerrymandering in this state, it’s just as likely the majority party will do what it wants.

Politics is not perfect. North Carolina has a particularly nasty history of gerrymandering. So even if this bill is flawed, it still has promise.