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Panel Including Former Judges Discusses Nonpartisan Redistricting

February 4, 2017

By Joe Gamm, Greensboro News & Record

Partisanship has resulted in the “squiggly lines” that represent legislative districts, according to Tom Ross, former president of the UNC system.

And Republicans aren’t alone in responsibility for complex districting that empowers their party. Democrats are “really good at gerrymandering, too,” he told about 300 people packed into a lecture hall in the UNC-Greensboro School of Education Building Thursday night. About 500 people sent RSVPs, so the university provided an overflow room.

Ross, a former Superior Court judge, and former state Supreme Court chief justices Henry Frye of Greensboro and Rhoda Billings presented a panel discussion about their vision for nonpartisan redistricting.

“Nonpartisan redistricting is the key to solving the most-broken aspects of our political system,” Ross said. “If we’re not going to step up and fight for democracy, we’re going to lose it.”

He said candidates are being pushed further to the extreme sides of their parties.

Despite that, 59 percent of N.C. voters favor nonpartisan redistricting, compared with 15 percent who oppose it, he said.

In August, the judges — who participated in an advisory panel that Duke University and the nonprofit Common Cause North Carolina formed last year — presented a plan that laid out districts without taking politics into consideration.

The judges used four criteria to form their districts — make districts compact, keep them contiguous, follow state and federal law and ignore all political factors, including voter registration, voter turnout, past election results and residence of incumbents and challengers.

All of Guilford County would be included in a district that would also contain all of Randolph and Caswell counties and parts of Rockingham and Alamance counties.

Under existing maps, Republicans won 10 of the state’s 13 congressional districts in 2016. The winner of the closest race had 58 percent of the vote.

Under the districting model the panel configured — and using election data from 2016 — Republicans would have won six, Democrats four and the other three would have been tossups.

And the races would have been much closer, Ross said.

To create their maps, the former judges broke into two groups, each containing two who ran as Republicans and two who ran as Democrats.

Each group started setting up districts in separate geographic regions. One started by first setting up districts at the state’s two most populous urban areas — Mecklenburg and Wake counties, each of which are too populous for a single district. The other group was to start by setting up districts along the coast, Billings said.

The two groups then compared maps and went back and made modifications, then compared again.

They checked their final map to see if it complied with the Voting Rights Act, which takes racial demographics into consideration.

“What was interesting,” Billings said, “was how little time we had to put this together.”

She said they put the map together in about four hours.

-Link to full story and video via Greensboro News and Record