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Court ruling will help limit partisan NC redistricting

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Sunday, November 5, 2017

The reaction last week from state Republican leaders was telling — telling much about the self-serving motives behind redistricting, which should foster a chorus of voices to end political gerrymandering by any party in North Carolina.

GOP leaders, responding to the ruling by judges Catherine Eagles and Thomas Schroeder of the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina and James Wynn of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on their party's latest redistricting maps, came quick and loud — like a cry of pain after a Band-Aid is ripped from a sore, festering wound.

The three-judge federal panel ruled that not only are the most recent party-drawn redistricting maps unacceptable, but that the court will not give the state GOP another chance to submit more maps. Instead, it called on an outside legal expert to fix the partisan redistricting quagmire, which last June was rendered an unconstitutional racial gerrymander by the U.S. Supreme Court.

GOP leaders immediately challenged the decision as a federal overstep "to seize the constitutional and sovereign right to draw districts from North Carolina’s elected representatives...," according to a statement from Republican Senate and House redistricting chairmen, Sen. Ralph Hise and Rep. David Lewis.

Hise and Lewis also took aim at the court's directive to hire a legal expert to redistrict the state, calling the expert chosen —Stanford University’s Nathaniel Persily — "an un-elected California college professor with clear conflicts of interest."

Persily is a nationally recognized scholar of constitutional law, election law, and the democratic process. He has been a court-appointed expert on legislative redistricting in Georgia, Maryland, and New York, and was appointed in 2012 by the Connecticut Supreme Court to head redistricting of that state's congressional districts. Not exactly conflict-worthy credentials, as Hise and Lewis would have us believe.

Considering that Republicans are responsible for the current — and illegal — legislative districts, they may need reminding of their own "clear" conflicts of interest when it comes to map drawing. The evidence is easy to spot: A state with roughly equal numbers of residents registered as Republicans and Democrats (who actually hold a slight advantage) is egregiously lopsided in its political representation in Raleigh. Elected Republicans outnumber elected Democrats 75-45 in the House and 35-15 in the Senate. In the U.S. House, the state is represented by 10 Republicans and three Democrats.

As for how that was achieved, state GOP leaders brought in their own outside "un-elected" Republican redistricting guru, Tom Hofeller of Alexandria, Va., to carve out GOP-friendly election districts in 2011. Hofeller's lengthy national resume includes redistricting out Democratic lawmakers and replacing them with Republicans in dozens of states over the last 20 years.

Rather than allowing Hofeller to make another partisan stab at redistricting, the federal court is calling on Persily to fix the problem of generating fair election maps from a non-partisan perspective.

Apparently, that's a worst-case scenario for GOP leaders. And by challenging federal authority to ensure fair, lawful districts, they are effectively thumbing their nose at the state's voters, who are the court's targeted benefactors. Federal law instills a responsibility in the U.S. courts — and other agencies as needed — to override state actions when they are determined to be unconstitutional. That's how racial desegregation was implemented across much of the South — with armed troops in some cases — during in the 1960s.

We don't expect federal troops to be required to ensure lawful redistricting for voters, but outright rejection of flawed, party-driven maps and insistence on outside expertise to get the job done suggests the federal court has little confidence in this group of North Carolina political leaders to get the job done. Effectively, the court is saying voters and their right to lawful, fairly-drawn voting districts, take priority over party objectives.

Their contentious reaction also unveils an underlying fear among Republican leaders who have benefited politically from holding unchallenged, veto-proof majorities in both houses of the General Assembly — majorities virtually guaranteed as a result of the 2011 voting districts. That fear is palpable for a party uncertain about its hold on power and insecure in its standing with the voters. Under a non-partisan — voter-focused — redistricting plan, Republicans may have to work harder to get elected, compromise more and learn to share power more.

The same, of course, applies to Democrats, Libertarians and others who seek elective office. Hence, new redistricting maps may not change which party controls the General Assembly, as that remains, or should remain, up to the voters.

Elections were always intended to be contests about winning the vote with ideas, platforms and vision, rather than with gerrymandered election districts. This court ruling can be a milestone toward putting elections and state power back in the hands of the voters.

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