Lawmakers introduce bipartisan bill to end gerrymandering in NC

State lawmakers on Tuesday unveiled a redistricting reform proposal to change the way North Carolina’s voting maps are drawn.

House Bill 200 would take politics out of the redistricting process. Instead of lawmakers drawing their own districts for partisan advantage, a nonpartisan legislative staff would create congressional and legislative maps completely blind of any political consideration. The bill would take effect for the 2021 redistricting cycle.

The bill’s primary sponsors are Reps. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), Jonathan Jordan (R-Ashe, Watauga), Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) and Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes).

“This bill will reduce the influence of partisan politics in the redistricting process,” Hardister said. “It will strengthen public confidence in our system of government.”

Under North Carolina’s longstanding system, whichever party controls the legislature also controls redistricting. For decades, the result has been voting maps that heavily favor one party or the other and reduce competition at the ballot box.

Since 1992, nearly half of all legislative races have had only one candidate on the ballot. And just 1 in 10 of last year’s legislative races were competitive. The other 90 percent were decided by double-digit margins.

“Independent redistricting puts North Carolina citizens ahead of party politics,” Jordan said. “This proposal will ensure that our voting maps are drawn in a fair and impartial way that accurately reflects our state’s population.”

The bill would require nonpartisan legislative staff to follow strict guidelines when drawing voting districts, without any input from legislators. The maps would in turn be sent to the full legislature for an up or down vote. The plan is patterned after the impartial redistricting process used successfully by Iowa since 1980.

McGrady noted that Republicans had long called for redistricting reform during the years when they were in the legislative minority.

“Supporting redistricting reform was right when we were in the minority, and it’s still right now,” McGrady said. “We are here to serve the people of North Carolina and we must make sure they can have full confidence in the integrity and fairness of our elections.”

A majority of North Carolinians support independent redistricting, as shown by a January survey from Public Policy Polling that found 59 percent of voters in favor of making the map-drawing process nonpartisan, with just 15 percent opposed to reforming the current system.

“This legislation protects the right of North Carolina voters to choose their representatives, instead of politicians handpicking their voters,” Stevens said. “It’s a common-sense reform that has broad support among citizens across our state.”

A similar proposal was approved by the NC House with bipartisan support in 2011, but did not receive a vote in the NC Senate. It was re-introduced in 2013, and again 2015, but the bill stalled in committee in both instances.

Jane Pinsky, director of the nonpartisan NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, said the time may have arrived for reform to gain traction.

“North Carolinians are tired of the endless controversy around redistricting and they are saying ‘enough is enough.’ It’s time to finally end gerrymandering,” Pinsky said.

Bob Phillips, director of the nonpartisan Common Cause North Carolina, echoed that sentiment.

“Gerrymandering undermines the fundamental principle of American democracy by depriving voters of a choice in who represents them,” Phillips said. “This bill is a big step forward in respecting the will of North Carolina citizens.”

Over 240 civic leaders across North Carolina have signed a petition calling on the legislature to pass independent redistricting reform. A dozen towns and cities across the state have passed resolutions in support of independent redistricting. And more than 100 North Carolina business leaders have launched a coalition calling for an end to gerrymandering.

Hundreds of citizens are expected to take part in the Citizens Lobby Day to End Gerrymandering at the legislature on Wednesday, organized by the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform.