RALEIGH — High Country residents will not see any state legislative district changes in a new set of court-ordered N.C. House and Senate maps that were made in a hasty two-week process by the state legislature and approved on Sept. 17.
The new maps came after a Sept. 3 ruling by a three-judge panel in the Wake County Superior Court that many of the state’s Republican-drawn House and Senate districts were illegal partisan gerrymanders under the N.C. Constitution. The court gave a Sept. 18 deadline for new maps to be submitted for consideration.
The illegal gerrymanders at question were mostly congregated in the urban areas of the state. According to the ruling, areas outside of those specific counties could not be changed, meaning Watauga, Ashe, Avery and other neighboring counties couldn’t change districts.
“The Court’s order made it clear that only certain House and Senate districts needed to be redrawn, and did not permit any changes to (N.C. Senate) District 45,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Blowing Rock).
The proposed N.C. Senate maps — Session Law 2019-219 — passed the state Senate 38-9 on Sept. 16 with Democrats split, then the state House 62-52 along partisan lines. The N.C. House maps, now S.L. 2019-220, passed the state House 60-52 on Sept. 13 and the state Senate 24-21 on Sept. 17. Both votes were along party lines. Redistricting bills don’t need the governor’s signature to become law.
Ballard voted in favor of both maps; Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone) voted against.
“While I am not a member of the (N.C. Senate) redistricting committee, I have followed the process and have come away with even more appreciation for our non-partisan staff than ever,” Ballard said. “The staff, along with the committee members, put in long hours of hard work complying with the court’s orders.”
Russell was critical of the process, which he described as tense, awkward, bizarre and lacking reasonable public input.
“The information was hard for me to find and I know how to do it,” Russell said.
Russell said that there was a minimal amount of tweaking from the base map, with a focus on not double-bunking representatives.
“I don’t think the process was what the court had intended the legislature do,” Russell added.
As part of the court’s transparency requirements, the process was streamed live. According to media reports, the N.C. Senate redistricting committee brought in and used a state lottery machine to randomly select a base map from where to begin to avoid claims of bias.
“The map used as a starting point in the process was created by Dr. Jowei Chen, who was hired by the Democratic Party to produce nonpartisan districts and testify as an expert witness in Common Cause v. Lewis,” Ballard said. “In its decision, the court used Chen’s maps as a model of non-partisanship. The only changes made to Chen’s (N.C.) Senate map were at the request of Democratic legislators.”
Russell has been an advocate of nonpartisan redistricting and said going through this process affirmed this belief.
“I’ve always thought that, but now I know more than ever, we’ve got to change how we draw districts in the state of N.C.,” Russell said.
As of Sept. 19, the three-judge panel had not made a decision whether to accept the new maps or order a special master. On Sept. 13, the panel hired Stanford University law professor Nathaniel Persily to review the maps once submitted. Persily previously reviewed and made changes to NCGA maps that were ruled to be illegal racial gerrymanders in 2017.