Members of California's political mapmaking commission came to the Triad this week to show how boundaries drawn in a non-partisan way can fight gerrymandering in North Carolina.

The visit comes as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs whether the state's congressional maps are overly partisan in favor of Republicans.

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission is a 14-member panel in charge of drawing the state's congressional and legislative maps. Five members are Republicans, five are Democrats and four are unaffiliated.

Cynthia Dai is a Democrat on the commission. She says the move away from letting lawmakers draw their own maps has improved accountability.

“We are a separate state agency that has the final say on drawing electoral districts,” she says. “And this is the way that we've restored power to the people to allow voters to choose their politicians and not the other way around.”

Dai says she knows North Carolina more or less is a purple state. In many ways, it doesn't resemble notoriously blue California. She says when it comes to drawing political maps, though, North Carolina may not be so different after all.

”It's an extremely diverse state. It has fast-growing urban areas and large rural areas that have very different economic characteristics,” she says. “We both have mountain ranges and valleys and a coast and islands and all of this affects where people live. So, there's a complexity to North Carolina, just like California, that I believe requires people to understand where the communities are and how you draw lines that really allow people to have fair and effective representation."

Still, their move to nonpartisan maps wasn't easy. The initial ballot initiative that led to the commission's formation barely squeaked by the voters. And after it passed, there was another vote from opponents who wanted to repeal the measure. That effort failed, with about 60 percent of voters supporting the commission.

Peter Yao is a Republican member. He says the group understood there was some skepticism about what they were doing – voters either thought the commission would create a different way of gerrymandering the political system, or that 14 strangers getting together with no experience couldn't possibly get this complex task done. 

Yao says a transparent approach and getting input from the community helped overcome some of those fears. They started by throwing out the old maps.

“So starting with a clean slate, we had the opportunity to really reach out to the community, find out what they want, and then totally draw the map based on the input we get from the community,” he says.

Nonpartisan redistricting has been pushed in North Carolina before, but it hasn't gotten past the leadership of the party in power. That was the Democrats before the 2010 election and the Republicans ever since.

So why would the GOP consider it now? Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, says it could be a matter of political survival.

“The pendulum swings back and forth rapidly in this state now and that's part of it,” he says. “I hate to say it, but I think the party in power has to fear that they may not be that party in power after that election that ends in zero.”

He says Common Cause supported redistricting reform alongside Republicans when the Democrats were in power. He says the group continues to work with both parties to end gerrymandering.

There are bills pending in the North Carolina legislature that would in one way or another change how the maps are drawn in the future.

The committee members have also explained the California model in other states where gerrymandering is a concern. Their travel is supported by a grant from the Harvard Kennedy Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.


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