By Jim Buchanan

 

A series of 13 public hearings have begun across the state as lawmakers prepare to draw new maps for congressional and state voting districts.

Lawmakers will hold public hearings this month in each of the state’s 13 congressional districts as they get ready to draw new maps for legislative and congressional voting districts. On Tuesday, Sept. 21, a hearing will be held in Western Carolina University’s Health and Human Sciences Building at 5 p.m.

Every decade, lawmakers are required to draw new districts that reflect updated U.S. Census data, keeping districts equal in population to ensure votes count equally.

North Carolina will continue to have 50 state Senate seats and 120 state House seats, but with a 10 percent increase in population over the last decade, will see the addition of a U.S. House seat. That addition has been likened to dropping a stone in a pond; the additional seat will cause ripples that will shift the lines of the existing districts.

The hearings present an opportunity for citizens to tell lawmakers what’s important to them as the redistricting process moves forward – for example, a sentiment commonly expressed in rural regions is to draw districts as much as possible without splitting county lines.

Given that North Carolina’s explosive growth has been uneven – about half the state’s 100 counties lost population while half gained, with the largest gains coming in the most populous counties – meaning that as in the past the state’s megacounties will certainly be spliced and diced.

Here in the west, what is now the 11th U.S. Congressional District could be impacted by the addition of a new House seat. Redistricting after the 2010 Census changed the district from the most competitive in the state to the safest Republican seat, though changes in the last election put the entirety of Asheville back in the 11th, making it somewhat less “red.”

Chris Cooper, the Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor and Director of WCU’s Public Policy Institute, said with new changes, “It is hard for me to imagine it getting redder, but I’m similarly skeptical about whether it will shift blue enough to make a difference in the electoral results.”

State districts could be another matter.

The political composition of the 119th House District, which includes Jackson, might not change significantly, but its borders could. Cooper says, “It’s too early to know for sure, but it does look like Jackson will be paired with Transylvania instead of Haywood County in the State House.”

Cooper pointed out that would deny voters a sixth rematch of current Rep. Mike Clampitt, a Republican, who has held the seat twice, against former Democratic Rep. Joe Sam Queen, who took the seat in three elections.

Cooper says constituent input is vital in the redistricting process.

“Although the draft maps are not released, the General Assembly will accept comments on the redistricting process, criteria, and potential considerations at these open sessions,” Cooper said. “So, if you think a certain community of interest is important to maintain, this is a good time to make that known. If there are considerations that someone in Raleigh might not be aware of about representation in the mountains, there’s no better time to weigh in than the 21st. If you have been drawing maps in your spare time using one of the freely available mapping tools that are now available on the Internet, now is the time to present it to the people in charge of the process. If you think incumbency protection is key to a good map, or if you think it runs counter to democratic ideals, this is the meeting for you.”

Redistricting headlines tend to be about political leaders, power plays and lawsuits – in North Carolina, redistricting following the 2010 Census brought a decade’s worth of lawsuits – but here at the start of the process, the people have their chance to give input.

“It’s difficult to think of a political event that has a greater influence on how we’re represented than redistricting – the process by which we divide the state of North Carolina into congressional and General Assembly districts, based on population,” Cooper said. “For the most part, this is an elite-driven process, with the legislature drawing maps and the courts weighing in on their constitutionality once the inevitable objections come. On Sept. 21, 2021, citizens have an opportunity to weigh in on redistricting – and the location is in our backyard. There is, of course, no way to guarantee that your voice is heeded in the redistricting process. But there is a good way to make sure you will be ignored – and that would be to miss this once in a decade opportunity to participate in the process. So, whether you think the Republican Party has the best plan for America, whether your bumper includes calls to vote for Joe Biden, or whether you don’t pledge allegiance to either of the major parties, this is your opportunity to participate in the process and have your voice heard. Please don’t miss it.”

In addition to the public hearings, the House Redistricting Committee and Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee are accepting public comments on House, Senate and Congressional district plans at ncleg.gov/requestforcomments/38.