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Elections put redistricting future in Republicans’ hands

RALEIGH — Republicans have the big prize, majorities in the North Carolina House and Senate.

That prize is bigger in this election than in most because next year those legislative majorities will take on the once-a-decade task of drawing new legislative and congressional district maps.

So, with their win, Republicans will have the opportunity to shore up their majorities by carefully crafting lines that maximize Republican voters across all 120 House districts and all 50 Senate districts.

Now that GOP legislators and their supporters have won a hard-fought battle, only a fool would expect them to give up redistricting power.

OK, call me a fool, or at least a bit of one.

The new bosses of the legislature shouldn’t forget that legislators from their party, over the past decade, have filed bills in each and every legislative session to give up redistricting power, to put the task of drawing new legislative districts in the hands of an independent redistricting commission.

During the last legislative session, one of the primary sponsors of the bill was the House’s Republican leader, Paul “Skip” Stam. Co-sponsors of companion bills in the House and Senate included Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who is likely to become the new Senate leader, and Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, a frontrunner for House speaker.

The legislation was named for the late Ham Horton, a longtime Republican pillar of the state Senate.

It will be fun sport, in coming weeks, to ask Republican legislators why that was a good piece of legislation in 2009 but not in 2011.

The real answer — but the one they likely won’t give publicly — is that they didn’t work this hard to win their first two-chamber majority in a century just to give it up.

Still, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t take one whack at the redistricting game and leave future line-drawing to an appointed, independent group, as occurs in about a half dozen other states.

After all, they filed those bills for a reason. Presumably, it wasn’t solely because Democrats controlled the process.

Gerrymandered districts that result from high-tech, highly partisan redistricting efforts divide communities of interest and give less voice to political moderates. Computer-assisted mapmaking and voting analysis by precinct and postal ZIP code allow candidates to pick their voters, instead of vice versa.

If candidates choosing voters was wrong in 2009, it’s still wrong in 2011.

And it’s safe to assume that political operatives in Washington will be having plenty of influence in the map drawing. That influence doesn’t seem to fit too nicely with the Republican philosophy of more state and local control.

Finally, Democrats likely will find some legal angle to challenge Republican redistricting in 2011, just as Republicans challenged districts drawn by Democrats in 2001. State courts will wade into the most political of political minefields.

The result won’t be pretty or cheap.

But if this new Republican majority wants to prove that it really is different from the Democrats, here’s its first big test.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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