Nonpartisan redistricting would strengthen nonprofits' voices

David Heinen, Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

Every 10 years (after each U.S. Census), state lawmakers decide on the maps that will be used for North Carolina's congressional and state legislative districts for the next decade. The next round of redistricting will take place in 2021. For decades, lawmakers in the majority party in the North Carolina General Assembly (regardless of which party has been in power) have used the redistricting process as an opportunity to "gerrymander" districts to keep their party in power by packing like-minded voters into the same district, while creating a majority of districts that strongly favor their own political party. Another North Carolina tradition is that the other major political party and good government advocates spend the next decade filing a variety of lawsuits challenging these gerrymandered districts. Legislators from the majority party (again, this is true regardless of which party is in the majority) then tweak their redistricting plans to satisfy the various court rulings, while still trying to preserve as much of their partisan advantage as possible in elections.

This could finally be the year that legislators decide to take politics out of the redistricting process. The Center wholeheartedly supports shifting to a nonpartisan, independent redistricting process, since ending gerrymandering would strengthen nonprofits' voices on public policy issues.

Why nonpartisan redistricting matters for nonprofits

With gerrymandered districts, most legislators (from both major political parties) have relatively non-competitive general elections. Instead, our elected officials are largely selected by partisan political insiders and major campaign donors. It's become cliche to assert that gerrymandering means that politicians (and their major political donors) choose their voters rather than allowing voters to choose their elected officials.

Pragmatically, gerrymandering means that most elected officials listen more closely to their partisan political donors than to the constituents whom they ostensibly represent. Since 501(c)(3) nonprofits are the voices of their communities but are not (and should not be) politicial donors, gerrymandering significantly reduces nonprofits' influence on public policy. Replacing our current gerrymandered system with an independent, nonpartisan redistrictring process would help ensure that nonprofits have a meaningful voice in policy matters related to their missions.

At the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits,we have seen this play out during our annual Nonprofit Town Hall meetings. Even with the current gerrymandered system, there are a few competitive legislative districts spread around the state. Most of the state senators and representatives from these competitive disricts (again, this includes a mix of Democrats and Republicans) not only show up for our town hall meetings every year, but they ask great questions, seem to genuinely care about the concerns of the nonprofits in their districts, and stick around afterwards to learn more about the work of organizations serving their communities. While there are some notable exceptions, relatively few state legislators from non-competitive, gerrymandered districts show up to learn about the issues that are important to the nonprofits in their community (and, once again, Democrats and Republicans from gerrymandered districts are equally guilty of this).

We've also heard numerous stories of nonprofit leaders - who could provide valuable input on ways that important policy issues would affect the lives of countless North Carolinians - being told that their members of Congress or state legislators don't have time to meet with them (or at least don't have much time to meet with them) only to discover that those same elected officials somehow found the time for lengthy and frequent meetings with their major campaign donors, many of whom don't even live in their districts (and often aren't even from North Carolina). If most elected officials had to worry about winning general elections every two years (meaning, they need to be attentive to the needs of their constituents) rather than raising as much money as possible for their primary campaigns (meaning, they need to be attentive to the desires of their major political donors), they would almost certainly spend more time meeting with - and actually listening to - the nonprofits serving their community.

Legislative proposals

The first nonpartisan redistricting bill of the year was filed on February 13 when four members of the N.C. House of Representatives introduced legislation (H.R. 69) that would create a nonpartisan commission to draw the state's congressional and legislative districts every 10 years. The bill's nonpartisan redistricting process, which is modeled after the process currently used in Iowa, would use an 11-person commission to draw maps. Four members of the commission would be chosen by each major political party, and three members would be unaffiliated with either of the two major parties. The commission would have a transparent process for seeking public input and developing maps that are compact, contiguous, and follow state and federal law - taking politics out of the process and ensuring that redistricting is done in a fully transparent way. It is particularly encouraging that the bill's four primary sponsors - Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham), Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), and Rep. Brian Turner (D-Buncombe) - are bipartisan and are well-respected leaders within their caucuses.

It's likely that legislators will file other proposals this way to move North Carolina away from gerrymandering. Some of these proposals could include state constitutional amendments that woudl prevent future legislators' from moving back to a gerrymandered system by enshrining a nonpartisan redistricting process in the North Carolina Constitution. Others may include different ways of taking politics out of the process, while adding more transparency to the way redistricting is done. Any of these changes will be a massive improvement over the current system of gerrymandering.

Outlook for 2019

This year may offer the best opportunity in decades for North Carolina to switch to an independent, nonpartisan redistrcting process. Historically, whichever party is in the minority in the General Assembly has championed nonpartisan redistricting, while the party in power has dismissed these proposals, since eliminating gerrymandering could jeopardize their "guaranteed" legislative majorities in future elections. However, there is enough uncertainty surrounding the 2020 election - and around federal and state court cases challenging the legality of North Carolina's current congressional and legislative districts - that lawmakers from both parties may have reason to fear that the other party will be in charge of drawing distrct lines in 2021. It's particularly encouraging that more than half of the members of the NC House of Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of H.B. 69, all but ensuring that the House would approve of nonpartisan redistricting if and when it comes up for a vote.

Nonprofits should take this opportunity to support proposals for independent, nonpartisan redistricting this year, since this systemic change in our electoral process would give nonprofits the opportunity to truly be heard by elected officials as the voices of our communities.

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