Former judges kick off independent redistricting project at Duke

Duke University on Thursday was host to an effort showing how North Carolina can move beyond gerrymandering and instead adopt an independent process for drawing the state’s voting maps.

“This is something that needs to be improved and we could sit back and complain about it, but instead we said ‘let’s try,'” said Henry Frye, former chief justice of the NC Supreme Court and a participant in the redistricting project.

Organized by Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and Common Cause North Carolina, the independent redistricting simulation featured a bipartisan panel of 10 former judges and justices brought together to draw new, but unofficial, congressional districts as an example of fair and impartial redistricting.

“We’re hoping that this project will help better understand the issue, better understand its complexity and some potential solutions that we think might be available,” said Tom Ross, the Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow at Duke University.

Thursday’s event was an orientation, with the panel of former judges and members of the public getting a primer on how gerrymandering has impacted North Carolina, as well as how demographics are rapidly changing the state’s population – which could be a compelling reason for Republicans and Democrats alike to take up redistricting reform.

“This is an insurance policy for both parties, because if you have something that is more fair then you can possibly, if you’re in the minority party, not be gerrymandered into irrelevancy,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina.

Former NC Supreme Court justice Bob Orr, another redistricting panel participant, said the state’s growing population and the complexity of the issues it faces “compels both political parties to look for ways to have a better system of government.”

Several Duke students in attendance at Thursday’s event said gerrymandering is an issue that impacts voters of all ages.

“The concept of gerrymandering is undemocratic. I think that politicians getting to choose their own voters, as opposed to the other way around, is the wrong way to do it,” said Hunter Buckworth, a student at Duke. “I think the Sanford School taking an initiative to see if we can make it better is definitely a worthwhile project.”

The panel of former judges will reconvene later this spring or summer to begin drawing congressional districts as a model of independent redistricting for North Carolina.

Polls have consistently shown bipartisan support for independent redistricting among a strong majority of North Carolina voters. At the same time, over 240 local elected officials from 128 towns and cities across North Carolina have signed a petition calling on the legislature to enact independent redistricting. And both Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper have spoken out against gerrymandering, as have former governors Jim Martin and Jim Hunt.