RALEIGH – They came from across the state, from the mountains to the sea. Some 150 North Carolinians packed a committee room on the 6th floor of the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh to do what legislative leaders refused to – hold a public hearing on a plan to enact nonpartisan redistricting.
House Bill 200 would end gerrymandering in North Carolina by taking redistricting power away from partisan legislators and instead give it to nonpartisan staff. That independent staff would in turn be required to draw the state's congressional and legislative districts free from partisan politics.
The measure has 39 bipartisan co-sponsors in the NC House, led by four Republicans. But since the proposal was introduced 15 weeks ago, House Bill 200 has been left untouched by the House Rules Committee, denied a vote or even a hearing.
And so North Carolina citizens held their own, dubbed a "People's Hearing on HB200" organized by the good-government group Common Cause NC.
In all, some 60 speakers came to the podium during the two-hour hearing, each expressing why they support a nonpartisan system for drawing North Carolina's voting maps.
"If we want sound government that balances the extremes, governs from the center, provides efficient and effective policies for all the citizens of our great state, we must end the addiction to gerrymandering," said Peter van Dorsten, a Raleigh resident.
As several speakers noted, both parties have been guilty of gerrymandering but with the same results: citizens treated as political pawns left without a choice or a voice in elections, virtually deprived of their right to vote. In fact, since 1992, nearly half of the state's legislative races have had just one candidate on the ballot - deciding the outcome of these elections before a single vote is cast.
"I think this is the worst thing that can possibly be done to you, other than taking your life away from you, is taking your vote away from you," said Wendell Williamson of Wadesboro.
Karen Fixsen of Durham praised the bipartisan sponsors of HB200 and SB209, saying their "belief in democracy of the people, by the people and for the people is heartening."
However, speakers were less complimentary of legislative leaders who have thus far blocked the bill's sponsors from receiving a vote on the proposal.
"I think it's cowardly of the General Assembly not to let this bill out to be voted for," said Orange County resident Jane Peppler.
Jennifer Rudolph of Wake Forest echoed that sentiment, saying, "Denying a vote on independent redistricting means the elected officials in charge are worried about the effects of fair maps on the next election. Fair maps create competitive campaigns, so if they're worried about that, we should be worried about democracy."
By coincidence, the People's Hearing on HB200 came the same day that the US Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that North Carolina lawmakers unconstitutionally gerrymandered dozens of legislative districts along racial lines. It was the third time in two weeks that the high court weighed in against the state's unlawful gerrymandering.
Al Brady, a Highlands resident, offered words of advice for legislative leaders frustrated by a spate of court rulings against the General Assembly's gerrymandering. "I have a very simple solution for that: have somebody other than politicians set up these districts and then our votes will count."
For the North Carolinians gathered at the People's Hearing on HB200, enacting a fair redistricting system is key to ensuring voters from across the political spectrum are able to have a voice in elections.
"What I would like to see is that everybody – Republican, independent and Democrat – feels like their vote counts," said Kathleen Koechling of Cary. "That doesn't happen right now."