NC lawmakers again wrangle over redrawing legislative maps

RALEIGH, North Carolina (WTVD) -- Causing a serious case of "Deja vu, all over again," North Carolina lawmakers were back at it Wednesday, wrangling over what the process of drawing state electoral maps should look like.

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On Thursday, a three-judge federal panel in Greensboro will hear arguments from the state and challengers about how to remedy the 28 legislative districts found to have been illegally gerrymandered in 2011.

On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers called a joint committee meeting where Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett County, laid down the initial plan for how the state will proceed if the court leaves it up to lawmakers to decide what the criteria should be for the new maps, draw them, and decide when they should be finished.

"As this is before the fed bench," Lewis told reporters after the meeting, "it would probably be within their authority to establish the criteria themselves. If they don't, we will seek public input and this committee will seek public input and this committee will establish the criteria from which the maps will be drawn."

If that happens, Lewis said there would be public hearings during the next three months and maps would be drawn by November.

"The order we're under is to not use the 2011 maps again," Lewis said. "The order to redraw the maps, we're complying with. We feel that the time frame we proposed to have the maps drawn by November, in order for people to start filing for office in February is a reasonable time frame."

Democrats pounced, contending that the court ordered the state not to use the 2011 maps and returned to an earlier ruling that special, emergency elections should be held in November 2017 instead of 2018.

Critics also laid into Lewis for acknowledging Republicans will be turning to the same controversial map maker - Dr. Thomas Hofeller - this time around.

We asked Lewis why Republicans would turn to a person that many will be turned off to right off the bat.

"He's certainly the guy that I have the most confidence in," Lewis replied. "And we're not going to get a map that everybody is going to be happy with. What we're going to do is conduct an open and transparent process where everybody has input and everybody is asked to send forward their ideas."

Critics pointed out that Republicans won't make Hofeller's research, process or results public, something Lewis also acknowledged.

"Our hope," said Bob Phillips with Common Cause, "is that what they all used to support, and that is an impartial criteria, will be something that they seriously consider. Specifically, taking politics out of the process.

"When you sit down and draw the maps," Phillips added, "You can completely remove the data that shows you how a district has voted in past elections."

Marcus Bass, with Democracy NC, began a rally outside the state legislature hours before the meeting, saying, "We believe at Democracy North Carolina that the issue of fair maps, regardless of what side of the aisle you're on, what your political representation may be, the process of drawing maps must be fair to the people of North Carolina."

Bass cited a new poll from Public Policy Polling showing 4 out of 5 voters in North Carolina want an independent process to choose the state's elected officials; a process he says is tinted with the stain of prejudice.

"This is a part of a larger attempt to rig the system and take away the voices and political power of voters of color," Bass said.

At that same event, Phillips had this message for Republican lawmakers: "You were in favor of redistricting reform when your party was in the minority. You championed proposals that were fair; that took the politics out of the process. And Common Cause was an organization that stood shoulder to shoulder with you.

'It's wrong regardless of who does it. Democrats did it; Republicans are doing it. Gerrymandering is always wrong whether it's the Democrats who did it or the Republicans who are doing it, it's wrong," Phillips continued, "What we need and what this legislature has an opportunity to do is adopt fair criteria. Criteria that first and foremost takes the politics out of the process."

There is a bill that attempts to do that in the legislature, it's House Bill 200.

It would have non-partisan staff draw the maps. It's a bipartisan bill with strong support from members on both sides of the aisle.

Whether it has any chance of passing is another matter entirely. It would essentially mean the Republicans stripping themselves of a remarkable degree of power.

You don't have to look far to find skeptics of the idea that when the state draws new maps after the 2020 census, the process will be much different. But Phillips is an optimist. "The clock is ticking. I believe it's winding down in North Carolina."
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