The Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly have redrawn the districts for the state House and Senate seats, and the Democrats don’t like the new districts any better than the current ones.
That is the gist of the public hearing held across the state on the newly drawn districts on Tuesday, August 22.
The truth is that the Republicans don’t like it much either. The Republicans were satisfied with the districts as they were drawn in 2011.
But the current districts were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and a a panel of three federal judges ordered that new districts be drawn by Sept. 1 The courts ruled that too much emphasis was placed on race in drawing the districts, and as a result some districts had too high a percentage of black voters.
The argument is that if too many black voters are placed in a district that dilutes the electoral power of those black voters. It’s an intriguing argument that assumes if you have 20 percent black Democrats in an 80 percent Republican district that those black voters have more electoral power than the black voters in a district that is made up of 60 percent black Democratic voters. It’s tough concept to understand.
For the most part, the newly drawn districts are more compact and split fewer precincts than the current districts. Only 28 districts in North Carolina were found to be unconstitutional by the courts. But it’s impossible to just redraw 28 districts because redrawing one district effects the districts around it, so you have a domino effect where most of the districts in the state were redrawn.
In Guilford County, the proposed new districts place two Republican representatives in the same district, called double bunking.
District 59 Rep. Jon Hardister and District 61 Rep. John Faircloth are both in the newly drawn District 61, which includes most of Faircloth’s current district in High Point but also part of northern Greensboro where Hardister lives. It’s a little odd for the Republican legislature to double bunk Republican representatives.
However, Faircloth, who didn’t attend the public hearing, said he was sure that he and Hardister could work out a mutually agreeable solution. Faircloth said, “When the dust settles, we’ll have time to sit down over a cup of coffee and work something out.”
Faircloth added, “I do intend to run again.”
Faircloth agreed that because most of the new District 61 is in High Point that it would be a difficult district for Hardister, who is from Greensboro, to win.
But Faircloth added, “It appears the new District 59 is ideal for him.”
Hardister was not available for comment, but Hardister is young and single and the new District 59 has no incumbent representative, so it may be that what will be worked out is for Hardister to move into District 59 before the 2018 election and that is all predicated on the assumption that the districts do not change.
District 28 State Sen. Gladys Robinson, who attended the public hearing, said that not having all the information about the newly drawn map made it difficult to evaluate the new districts. She said, “It’s so unfair. If you don’t have the data packs it doesn’t do you any good to look at the maps.”
She added that from what she had seen, although the percentage of black voters in her new district was lower than in her current district, it looked pretty good for her.
What the Republicans had been ordered to do by the courts was to lower the percentage of black voters in the minority-majority districts, and in Robinson’s district that is what has been done.
Many of the speakers at the public hearing, which in Guilford County was held in the Medlin Campus Center at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, said that race should not be a consideration when drawing districts. This is a great idea, but the US Justice Department has determined that would be illegal as well. Districts cannot be drawn so that there is a likelihood that fewer black candidates would be elected to office.
So, in drawing the districts, the legislators have to place the correct percentage of black voters in the districts so that the likelihood is that a black legislator will be elected, but if the percentage is too high then that is unconstitutional.
What the courts have repeatedly refused to state is what that correct percentage of black voters is. Enough black voters have to be placed in minority-majority districts to give black candidates a good opportunity to be elected, but not so many as to “pack” the district with black voters. Only the federal judges know what that magic percentage of black voters is that is enough but not too much, and they aren’t telling.
There were many complaints at the Guilford County public hearing about the size of the room where it was held. The room had about 60 seats and about 60 people were sent to the overflow room on the ground floor, where people could watch the same video feed as the people upstairs. What the people in the overflow room didn’t know was that the sound quality in that room was much better than upstairs in the main room. The only difference was that people who wanted to speak had to go upstairs to the main room.
Some speakers suggested that it would be easy to draw districts, but if districts were drawn as some suggested they should be – without consideration for race or party – those would be unlikely to be approved by the courts, which require considering race.
The Republicans are going to draw districts that favor Republican candidates, just like the Democrats drew districts in North Carolina for over 100 years that favored Democratic candidates. It’s one of the privileges of winning the majority in the legislature.
What none of the speakers in the first hour mentioned was that Republicans won control of the state legislature in 2010 in districts drawn by the Democrats to favor Democratic candidates. If the Democrats don’t like the districts, they need to win a majority in the legislature in districts drawn by Republicans.
But the Democrats have chosen to go about changing the districts in a different way, through the federal courts that, after eight years of a Democratic president appointing Democratic judges, is heavily weighted toward the Democrats.
The public hearing – which was held simultaneously in seven locations in the state – was, as one might expect, controlled confusion. All seven sites were connected electronically so that, theoretically, the people at all seven sites could see and hear the people speaking at other sites on large video screens. Some people couldn’t be heard. Some walked away from the microphone. At times the audio was garbled. After the first few speakers, it appeared most of the kinks in the system were worked out and for the most part the speakers who did speak into the microphones could be heard. But the problems are not unique to this public hearing, as some in the mainstream media have implied. At public hearings held in one room, it is often difficult to understand the speaker because they are either too close or too far from the microphone and because some people don’t speak clearly.
The way this public hearing worked is that three speakers would speak from one of the seven locations around the state and then three speakers from another location and so forth. It meant that even if you were near the top of the list in your location, you might have to wait hours to speak.
Many of the speakers appeared to use talking points provided by the Democratic Party or a liberal lobbying group and said pretty much the same thing, ending with some variation of the statement that voters should choose the legislators rather than have legislators choose voters.
It’s makes for a good sound bite, but legislators do choose voters because the state constitution gives the legislature the responsibility of drawing the legislative districts.
Several speakers had a solution to this problem – they suggested that the federal courts draw the districts. That would certainly be good for the Democrats, since it would be Democratic judges drawing the districts. But from a standpoint of being a self-governing people, is it better to have federal judges appointed for life drawing the districts or legislators who must go before the voters every two years and stand for election?
Dist. 62 Rep. John Blust didn’t attend the public hearing but said that the problem with the current districts was that “the court changed the criteria from what it was a few years ago.”
Blust asked, “How do you draw voting rights districts if you can’t consider race.”
Blust said that there was a lot of talk by Democrats about nonpartisan redistricting, but, he added, “Nothing you could do other than to draw districts that favor the Democrats would get the people opposed to the districts in favor of them.”
He noted that the courts had found that political gerrymandering is legal and one of the problems North Carolina faced was that because over 90 percent of black voters are registered Democrats, if you draw districts based on party affiliation the districts are also drawn based on race.
The bottom line is that it is 2017, and districts that were drawn in 2011 are now being found unconstitutional and being redrawn, and will be redrawn again after the 2020 census. So it looks like the districts in North Carolina are going to change, and then after two elections change again, unless the courts find something wrong with the new districts – then it’s anybody’s guess what happens next.
Cutline: Photo by John Hammer
District 28 state Sen. Gladys Robinson from Guilford County and District 71 state Rep. Evelyn Terry (far right) from Forsyth County were on the front row for the public hearing on the newly drawn state House and Senate districts held at the Medlin Campus Center at Guilford Technical Community College on Tuesday. It was one of seven sites across the state where the public hearing was held simultaneously.