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Our Opinion: Take mapmaking tools away from self-serving pols

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Judges have sent North Carolina lawmakers back to the drawing board to redraft the state’s lopsided legislative district maps. Again.

A panel of three Superior Court judges handed down the ruling on Tuesday. Senate President Pro-tem Phil Berger frothed and fumed but said the General Assembly will redraw its maps rather than appealing to the state Supreme Court, where Democrats have a 6-1 advantage over Republicans and the GOP-leaning districts would face intense scrutiny.

It’s deja vu for a state that’s become synonymous with gerrymandering. Legislative districts were last retooled in 2017 — again by court order — and our congressional districts were at the center of a June U.S. Supreme Court opinion that redistricting is a legislative function and partisan advantage isn’t enough to trigger federal court jurisdiction.

Now that election mapmaking has become a semiannual tradition here rather than a 10-year exercise following the census as the founders intended, perhaps recalcitrant Republicans will reconsider the merits of depoliticizing the process by establishing a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

The principle that voters should choose their representatives rather than representatives choosing their voters is neither a liberal nor a conservative idea. It strikes us as common sense.

Republicans favored nonpartisan mapmaking when Democrats ruled the roost and wielded the pencil and ruler to their own advantage. Now that Republicans are in charge — and benefiting from high-tech software that allows them to skew the maps even further — they’ve resisted calls for reform.

Conservative think tanks like the John Locke Foundation have joined the N.C. Democratic Party and progressive public policy groups in endorsing a new way forward for redistricting. Even third parties are getting in on the act, noting that both Democrats and Republicans have shown hypocrisy when it suits their political fortunes.

“The establishment parties have proven they’re not only unable but unwilling to draw district lines fairly,” said Brian Irving of the Libertarian Party of North Carolina. “We need to take that power away from them, not give them another chance to abuse it.”

Libertarians, along with various stakeholders from across the political spectrum, have joined the League of Women Voters-organized Fair Districts N.C. Coalition. The bipartisan group is marshaling support for a citizens’ redistricting commission that would require broad consensus for new maps.

Sen. Erica D. Smith, D-Northampton, introduced a bill to establish such a panel in April. Republicans shelved it in the Senate Rules Committee.

Opponents argue that there’s no such thing as truly nonpartisan redistricting, as commissioners would be political appointees and even unaffiliated voters are likely to have partisan preferences. While there’s nothing wrong with skepticism, perfect needn’t be the enemy of good.

A group of fair-minded people could surely produce more compact and more competitive legislative districts than the sprawling, squiggly gerrymanders we have today. And we fail to see why any voter — or, for that matter, any true public servant — would object.

Drawing state House and Senate districts that heavily favor either party dilutes voters’ voice and leads to intense polarization. Republicans and Democrats needn’t pivot to the center when their partisan base holds an insurmountable advantage in voter registration. Primaries become the true contests and voters are deprived of choices on Election Day.

In 2016, more than 40% of North Carolina legislative districts had only one candidate on the general election ballot. Twenty-seven representatives and 11 state senators ran unopposed. Heavily gerrymandered districts are the chief culprit.

Call us old-fashioned, but we believe voters deserve choices and elected officials should be accountable to all their constituents, not just those who belong to the political party maintaining a perpetual stranglehold on their district.

Nonpartisan redistricting isn’t a radical idea; it’s about the least lawmakers can do to empower the people they represent. They ought to go a step further and pass legislation allowing recall elections by petition. When we send someone to Raleigh who fails to act in our interest, we shouldn’t have to wait until the next election cycle to send him or her home.

It’s time for Senator Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore to put the era of hyperpartisan gerrymandering behind them. They’ve settled their score and exacted their revenge on Democrats who previously drew their own slanted districts. Call it a draw and move on. Do it for democracy’s sake.

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