At UNCG, Former Judges Make Case For Nonpartisan Redistricting

At UNCG, Former Judges Make Case For Nonpartisan Redistricting

6:05pm Jan 29, 2017
Former Chief Justice Rhoda Billings speaks as Justice Henry Frye listens during a forum on redistricting at the University of North Carolina Greensboro on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. Paul Garber/WFDD

The drawing of Congressional maps may seem like an arcane part of the political process. But interest in North Carolina’s controversial boundaries drew hundreds of people to UNC Greensboro Thursday night. They were there to see a new way of redistricting proposed by a bipartisan panel of former state judges.

Eight judges and justices - four Democrats and four Republicans - worked on what’s called the map project. They say their version relies less on political factors and does a better job of keeping like-minded communities together.

Tom Ross, a former Superior Court judge, who until last year served as President of the UNC system, says gerrymandering has moved candidates away from the political center.

“Districts become increasingly only winnable by people in one party," he says. "And so if they’re going to get challenged, they’re going to get challenged in a primary. And that tends to drive them to the extreme of their party to attract the most votes. It happens in both parties.”

Republicans won 10 of the 13 Congressional seats in November’s election, and none of the races were close. Under the maps drawn by the judges, Democrats would likely win an additional seat, and three races would be so close they'd be impossible to call in advance. So why would the GOP-led legislature agree to change the maps? Former Chief Justice Henry Frye - who also served in the General Assembly - says lawmakers should look at the long term.

“One party’s in power today, next year or whenever the next election is the other party may be in power.  And you don’t know which one it’s going to be. So you may give up a little bit of power now in order to have a little more when you’re in the minority.”

The maps drawn by the judges are for educational purposes, and the legislature is not bound in any way to consider them.

The League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad organized the UNCG forum. Anna Fesmire, a past president of the league, says it's important for people to understand that there's an alternative to partisan gerrymandering.

"The fact that we've had four Republican judges and four Democratic judges who got together and did this, it shows that there's a nonpartisan approach that's very valid," she says. 

Last year a federal court threw out the state’s maps, which forced a delay in the Congressional primary. The maps for the state’s legislative districts have also been thrown out and a new election was ordered for this year. The U.S. Supreme Court has put that decision on hold.

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