Many cheered when the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that independent redistricting commissions are Constitutional. Enthusiasm in North Carolina was muted; we neither have nor have much hope for such a commission, because our legislature must approve the process and, regardless of whether ruled by Democrats or Republicans, it has shown little interest in giving up the power to draw Congressional and legislative districts.
The recent Supreme Court case involved the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, started after responsible citizens of that state became fed up with the constant gerrymandering that resulted from legislators essentially choosing their voters, rather than having voters choosing them. A bipartisan group began a ballot initiative movement and some 56 percent of the voters approved, setting up the independent commission in 2012.
Arizona’s commission has five members consisting of two Republicans, two Democrats and one unaffiliated or Independent member. Colleen Mathis, chair of the Arizona commission, said on a recent Diane Rehm show that her group must first adhere to all the rules of the U.S. Constitution, the federal Voting Rights Act and the Arizona Constitution. To the extent practicable they strive to create districts of equal population, trying to ensure they are compact, contiguous, respect communities of interest and use visible geographic features like municipal or county boundaries. Another guiding principle is to favor competitive districts, because they are convinced better government results from competitive elections where candidates must state their beliefs to and defend their records with voters.
North Carolina could benefit from such an independent redistricting commission but there is a huge stumbling block our state faces that many of the other 10 that have reformed the redistricting process have not. Our state is one of 26 that does not provide for citizens to sign petitions calling for either a direct or indirect ballot initiative. With the direct initiative a constitutional provision or statute can be taken directly to the voters for an up or down vote. The indirect initiative stipulates that if legislators do not deal with an issue it can be taken directly to voters.
No doubt you’ve heard about some of the more outrageous ballot initiatives; they seem to originate most frequently in the state of California. Without question there can be drawbacks to direct democracy, especially when voters speak to emotionally popular issues without any respect for fiscal or financial responsibility. For instance, if you put it to a vote we suspect a plurality would vote to end (or at least drastically cut) taxes. Just because something might be popular doesn’t make it a wise or workable practice for living together, but aside from a few egregious examples common sense seems to prevail in the 24 states that employ the practice.
When it comes to redistricting reform our state can be compared to having the inmates running the prison or patients controlling the asylum. The quickest way to remedy the situation is at the ballot box, by electing legislators who will set up an independent redistricting commission, but the current group of incumbents has gerrymandered the districts to the point where defeating them is difficult, if not impossible. The next best way to get redistricting reform is through the ballot initiative and perhaps that should be our next big campaign.
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of N.C. Spin.