North Carolina Republican leaders are gearing up to gerrymander the state’s congressional and legislative voting maps in their favor as they turn their focus from delaying the budget toward redistricting.
But before they divide the state into odd-shaped districts that dilute the electoral power of certain voting blocs (Black and brown people, as well as college students, for example), they held three public hearings on redistricting at the end of September – Elizabeth City on Sept. 25, Hickory on Sept. 26 and Raleigh on Sept. 27. Those were the only three chances North Carolinians across the entire state had to speak face-to-face with lawmakers and ask them about the process of drawing new maps.
Republican lawmakers treated the hearings as one might expect when one party has supermajorities in both legislative chambers, plus a right-wing state Supreme Court and a right-wing U.S. Supreme Court backing them up – without care, concern, or respect for those who showed up to speak.
You wouldn’t be the only one who didn’t know that any public hearings on redistricting were even happening. For those who were aware of the hearings, some traveled more than 125 miles to speak out against extreme partisan gerrymandering at the Hickory forum, the Hickory Daily Record reported.
While the Republican legislators in attendance couldn’t have cared less about what the public thought about redistricting, those who attended did care – they gave lawmakers an earful throughout the two-hour hearing. Speakers had two minutes to talk and nearly every speaker at the meeting condemned partisan gerrymandering. Many speakers called for a nonpartisan commission to draw maps, and others said the state should keep its current congressional map that resulted in a 7-7 Democrat-Republican split in the state’s U.S. House delegation.
A major target of criticism at the hearing was the public input process itself. Many of the speakers complained that there were only three meetings held throughout the state and said the hearings were scheduled for an inconvenient time (4 p.m.).
The whole process was only a façade because, for the coup de grâce, Republicans don’t even have maps for people to review – or at least none that have been made public. Voters were expected to comment on something they’d never even seen. And don’t forget, once they do see the maps they won’t have a chance to ask lawmakers about them because the public hearings already happened.
“These hearings are nothing more than shams,” Watauga County resident Ben Henderson said. “Holding these hearings with such little notice so that voters have no time to prepare, in only three locations in the state so that citizens must travel great distances to have their voices heard and at a time of day when most working people are unable to attend, is an affront to every citizen of this state.”
Multiple speakers asked that lawmakers hold more public hearings following the release of the new maps but were told by one senator that they would have to “see what time we have to do that kind of thing.”
Voters the next day in Raleigh had very similar feelings to those who attended the Hickory public forum.
According to NC Newsline, voters at the Raleigh hearing told Republicans that they are sick of gerrymandering and blamed them for creating “deeply partisan election districts [that] erode democracy and make lawmakers unresponsive to residents’ needs and opinions.”
Speakers also accused Republicans of using redistricting to entrench their own power. Some who attended the final session traveled for hours to register their complaints in person. Dozens of voters spoke at the three-hour hearing.
“I am not a public speaker nor a political activist,” said John Suddath of Raleigh. “I’m just an 87-year-old man concerned about the state of democracy — little d — in this country, and particularly North Carolina. I can’t recall a time when I felt that the right to vote, and that each vote counts, was in such jeopardy.”
Republican legislators at the hearings told voters that they planned to have maps ready for release by the second week in October and that they would need to approve the maps before the end of the month.
The chances that Republicans take to heart anything that was said to them at the hearings is extremely slim, especially when considering a federal court opinion issued in 2018 that described how legislators ignored public comment when they made the state’s maps in 2016. According to NC Newsline, the House and Senate’s previous chairmen told a GOP map-making specialist to draw a congressional map with 10 Republican seats and three Democratic seats (our state now has 14 total seats). The maps had already been completed by the time the first public hearing was held and before the written comment deadline passed.
If Republicans are looking for ideas for their new maps they should listen to the voters who showed up to speak.
“The maps you draw have a life-changing impact on us,” said Kathy Wheeler of Guilford County, who asked legislators to keep the Triad’s cities together. “Maps should be all about the people and not about politics.”
Christopher Haywood of Cumberland County said the Sandhills should be in one congressional district.
“The Sandhills have been sliced, diced, fricasseed, and forgotten,” he said. “Make us a single district.”
A senior counsel for voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice told legislators they must still comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, which Hilary Harris Klein said “requires the consideration of race to protect minority voters against vote dilution.”
Though the public hearings are over, an online comment system remains open.