‘Reform is the answer:’ Voters gather at legislature to lobby for an end to gerrymandering

‘Reform is the answer:’ Voters gather at legislature to lobby for an end to gerrymandering

Harry Taylor, who ran for U.S. Congress in 2008 in district 9, joined Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina, on stage Tuesday to talk to people gathered at a lobby day to end gerrymandering. Taylor has a puppet, Gerry Mander, as part of an educational initiative, Flush GerryMander. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Redistricting reform is around the corner, and when it happens, it could move quickly. North Carolinians just have to think about what they want from that reform.

“We do have a voice; we do have an opportunity,” said Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina, a voting rights organization that has pushed for redistricting reform for over a decade.

About 60 “tried and true advocates” and voters gathered Tuesday at the legislature for the “People’s Lobby Day to End Gerrymandering.” They spoke to lawmakers and their legislative assistants to encourage support or thank them for their support of one of the six redistricting reform bills currently pending.

Other events throughout the day included a Q&A session, a presentation from the members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, and a people’s hearing on redistricting reform legislation.

Legislators from several delegations were supposed to be present for some of the events, but ended up in voting sessions or committee meetings because of crossover week.

It didn’t matter – voters in attendance were still engaged.

“It’s rare in our democracy where citizens can actually sit down and make decisions that affect the way things are done,” said Linda Brinkley, of Raleigh.

She was advocating at the people’s hearing on redistricting reform for a citizens commission to draw voting maps.

“This is the way to do it,” she said. “We care about democracy; we care about our votes. I don’t think that job should go anywhere else but with the citizens.”

Two of the current bills pending at the legislature would create a citizens redistricting commission, House Bill 574 and Senate Bill 673. Both are measures sponsored by Democrats, but many of the other redistricting reform bills have bipartisan support.

Legislative leaders – who supported reform when they were in the minority party – have not allowed any of the measures to be heard in committee. Phillips speculated that when something does move, it will be fast, because their backs will be up against a wall, particularly in light of the uncertainty about who will be in charge after the 2020 elections.

“That uncertainty, it’s a cloud over the leadership now,” he explained. “Reform is the answer.”

He said fear is something that has to be preached to legislators to garner support for redistricting reform. Litigation, too – the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether to limit partisan gerrymandering and is expected to make a decision by the end of June.

“We’re in a different spot today than we have been ever in this decade,” Phillips said optimistically.

Most of the voters at the lobby day, by a show of hands, indicated that they too were inspired and optimistic, though not everyone was on the same page about prospective reforms.

Linda Brinkley, of Raleigh, spoke out at a lobby day to end gerrymandering. She believes redistricting should be in the hands of a citizens commission. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“I don’t like any of these proposals,” said Jane Watson, of Raleigh.

Watson, an attorney based in Raleigh, said she thought the redistricting job should be up to a commission made up of a combination of appointed positions and elected offices. She also said it mattered what those individuals’ careers were – they should have experience in demography and statistics.

Other voters at the event said they didn’t want to see legislative staff drawing districts because it would be difficult for them to remain non-partisan. Some said they didn’t want political data considerations to be completely excluded from consideration, but others indicated they wanted politics out of the process altogether.

Attendees also discussed topics related to protecting political incumbents, keeping universities whole, and issues around credibility.

Harry Taylor, who ran for Congress in 2008 in District 9, brought his puppet “Gerry Mander” to the event too so he could raise awareness about gerrymandering. He started the “Flush Gerrymandering” initiative in 2003.

“People don’t know what this is, and it is immensely hard to explain,” Taylor said, adding that he created the puppet to help. “The message is if you want fair, clean elections, you want to flush Gerry Mander.”

By educating people about gerrymandering, he hopes to create more “people power” to make a real difference in 2020.

“We need to have people on the street bugging the legislators if we’re going to get anything done before 2020,” he said.