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Shape Of Political Boundaries At Stake This Election Year

The results will decide more than the winners and losers of different races. They'll also decide which political party will be in charge of redistricting. In January, lawmakers will begin the process of setting the political boundaries for 120 districts in the House, 50 in the state Senate and 13 congressional seats. If you ask the average person what's important in next month's election, chances are good you'll hear, jobs, or the deficit, or taxes, or education, or health care. Redistricting probably won't come up. It's not really on people's minds. But how those lines are drawn - and who gets to draw them - will affect the state's political landscape for the next decade. For most of North Carolina's history, redistricting wasn't much of an issue at all. Our state constitution requires legislative districts to stay within county lines. There wasn't much lawmakers could do about that. But the US Supreme Court ruled in the 1960s that districts - congressional and legislative - had to be pretty close to the same size in terms of population. It's called the "one person, one vote" rule, and lawmakers had to make exceptions to the county rule to comply. Then there was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That required lawmakers to avoid breaking up minority communities into different districts to dilute their voting power. And it required 40 North Carolina counties where there was a history of discrimination at the polls to get clearance from the Department of Justice whenever they change their districts or election laws. Those two federal mandates turned North Carolina's redistricting process into the Wild West. The county rule went out the window as lawmakers sculpted House, Senate, and Congressional districts to suit their political needs The driving force behind drawing districts beginning in the 1980s was incumbency protection. "Since the Democrats were in the majority, it was mainly to protect incumbent cemocrats, to keep control of the General Assembly in the hands of the Democratic party," said attorney Thomas Farr. "But quite honestly, there were a lot of Republicans that liked what was going on, too, because they ended up getting safe seats. They didn¿t have to campaign. They could keep their jobs without having to face the voters, basically." Farr was lead counsel on the state¿s two most important redistricting lawsuits ¿ Shaw v Hunt in the 1990s, a case that went to the US Supreme Court several times, and the Stephenson case, challenging the legislative plan of 2001. Farr says gerrymandering has led to a lot of corruption in North Carolina politics, because it doesn't give voters the power to hold their lawmakers accountable. "The main point is, the voters of North Carolina own the offices. The officeholders work for the voters. And the voters ought to be the ones picking these people. The politicians shouldn't be picking the voters they want to have to ensure that they're gonna have a job for life." Congressman Brad Miller was one of the lead architects of the 2001 plan that Farr took to court. Miller was in the state Senate then, the chairman of the Redistricting Committee. He doesn't deny partisanship plays a huge role in the process. Actually, he says, it's in lawmakers; best interests to create safe districts not just for own party, but for the other party as well "because that means that the districts you¿re gonna lose in some anyway, you might as well lose by a lot... and both parties pretty much proceeded on that basis." The next year, Miller won his seat in Congress in the new district he helped to draw. Meantime, the 2001 plan was thrown out by the courts, and had to be redrawn several times to make it more competitive. But even the final version has a lot of safe seats. In the last midterm election in 2006, 22 out of 50 state senators had no challenger from the other party. Sixty-three out of 120 House seats were safe, too. Most of these districts so heavily favor one party that the other party didn't bother to run anyone. That benefits the parties. they can save their money for battles they can win. But half the voters in this state had no choice for at least one of their legislators. This year, it's different. The Republicans are running candidates in all 50 senate districts. Most House districts are contested too. The battle for control of the legislature is shaping up to be a real brawl. And Bob Phillips with Common Cause says redistricting has a lot to do with it. "That is what this is all about... Because it will affect how the lines are drawn and how those elections are played out for the next decade," he says. Whatever party wins control, Phillip sayss next year's session is going to be a long one. In 2001, last time they started this process, the legislature stayed in Raleigh for 11 months. Phillips says that¿s because redistricting affected all the other work they were doing and all the deals they made. "It becomes the issue... And it just creates and contributes to why it takes so long." That's the main reason Phillips wants to see redistricting taken out of the Legislature altogether. He says it should be handed over to an independent nonpartisan commission who would put the voters' interests above the politicians. But who would appoint people to that commission, and how would they be chosen? Tim Storey is the redistricting expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures. He says 13 states are trying independent commissions, and so far, they don't seem to be helping much. "The commissions are far from perfect. You cannot take politics out of redistricting." Even so, attorney Thomas Farr says this year should be a little better than 2001. That's because of the Stephenson case, the lawsuit he won in 2002. In Stephenson, the state supreme court ruled that lawmakers can't disregard the state constitution just because of federal mandates. This time, as they draw legislative districts, they'll have to try to avoid breaking up counties while fulfilling the Voting Rights Act and "One person, one vote." Farr says it'll be complicated, but it should make the process fairer. "It is going to make it much, much, much more difficult for either party, no matter who is in charge of the General Assembly, to gerrymander the state and to make the elections irrelevant, basically," Farr said. More difficult, but not impossible. When the census numbers come out, some rural districts will go away entirely, and lawmakers will have to decide who among them will lose their seats. Urban counties will likely battle over new seats. And Stephenson doesn't apply to congressional districts which also have to be redrawn. And then there's the inevitable lawsuit. Or two, or three.