North Carolina state senator Jeff Jackson (D-Charlotte) made headlines recently with a bold promise: if Democrats take the state legislature and fail to pass redistricting reform, he’ll resign from office. This attitude of putting his money where his mouth is, along with his rare admission of his own party’s faults on the issue, are a breath of fresh air in the area of redistricting reform. Jackson also conveniently has a bill (SB641) ready and waiting, which includes redistricting reform as one of its sections. So how is his proposal, and does it truly represent nonpartisan reform? Well as a Republican and a critic of independent redistricting commissions, it’s a good start and a great good-faith effort, but has a few major flaws that need to be fixed.
Let’s start with the good: this bill maintains North Carolina’s strict requirements on compactness, placing it first and foremost (aside from the obvious requirements of the Voting Rights Act). The bill states “minimizing the number of split counties, municipalities, and other communities of interest” as the second goal of the commission (the first being a protection of “one man, one vote”), also requiring precincts to remain intact. It would also require districts, as far as possible, To be reasonably intact and places requirements against “elongated and irregularly shaped districts”, with specific standards set to indicate what distorted districts might look like. State legislative maps are limited to 5% variation from the ideal population, and the public would be able to submit their own plans and comment on the existing ones.
A high degree of transparency would be required, with all meetings, hearings, and plans to be submitted online. Additionally, commission members would be forbidden from considering party identification, incumbent residency, or voting patterns in drawing maps. These standards fall well in line with what the standard created in Ohio, a bipartisan plan I’ve written favorably about in the past, and even go beyond it in come areas. The only glaring fault I can find is there is no mandate that counties with a large enough population contain a district located entirely in the county, which would ensure Mecklenburg and Wake both have districts entirely of their own.
Another major benefit is that the bill doesn’t create an Arizona-style commission. I’ve written before about the flaws of the Arizona model (among other things, it gives basically all authority to the lone independent on the nine-member commission and led to gerrymandered maps for the 2010s), but this bill actually addresses most of them. The commission would consist of 15 members: five Democrats, five Republicans, and five independents. To pass, a plan would need the votes of at least three members of each faction – this means it needs a majority of the members of each party and a supermajority overall. The chairmanship of the commission would alternate every two months, and neither party could have consecutive chairmen. All told, this is excellent in terms of ensuring maps cannot be skewed easily.
No bill is perfect, of course, and Jeff Jackson’s proposal is no exception. A few elements of the bill could definitely use work. First and foremost, there is no legal recourse given for a subpar map, if one were to be drawn. As I read it, any maps drawn by either the commission or the Special master have the force of law as passed by the General Assembly. The Assembly would not be able to alter or amend these maps, and these maps would remain in force for the entire decade unless they are voided by the courts. Given the flaws that have been demonstrated in other states, however, it would seem prudent to have a built-in accountability mechanism for an improper map – perhaps allowing voters to contest districts by ballot initiative might be a solution here.
The absolute worst part of this bill is a glaring oversight that threatens the integrity of the entire proposal. This bill grants an enormous amount of power to the State Auditor, including the ability to determine the eligibility of applicants for the commission as well as to choose all candidates for the position of special master. The latter is especially important as the special master would have the complete authority to draw maps if the commission is unable to. The office of the State Auditor, coincidentally, is currently held by Beth Wood, a Democrat.
The State Auditor seems like an odd choice for this role, as the office primarily focuses on financial accountability and preventing waste of taxpayer dollars. In theory, the office of Secretary of State, which focuses on government accountability and is specifically tasked with upholding the state Constitution, seems like a better fit. However, I suspect Wood was chosen for this as she is less offensive to Republicans than current Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. Regardless, handing this level of authority to a low-level elected partisan office seems unwise, and it would likely make it one of the most-sought after offices in the state.
The authority given to the Auditor could perhaps more wisely be invested in the legislature as whole, requiring the leadership of both parties to agree on a fair choice. Alternatively, this authority could be collectively given to the Council of State, or the office of special master could be removed outright. As-is, I simply don’t think it’s fair to give this level of power to a partisan office in a supposedly nonpartisan plan.
Despite these issues, however, the Jackson plan seems like a good starting point for discussion. The downsides are relatively minimal while the benefits are apparent, and any issues can likely be hammered out. Aside from the major issues of overpowering the Auditor, there’s really not much that needs to be fixed here. It’s actually a reasonable and interesting plan that both parties would be wise to consider.