WINTERVILLE — Consistency was the word of the day at a public forum on redrawing state legislative and congressional districts Thursday, both in what speakers expect the districts to look like and how lawmakers should proceed.
About 75 people from across eastern North Carolina assembled at Pitt Community College’s Craig F. Goess Student Center to make their desires for new districts clear — contiguous, consistent and compact districts that avoid gerrymandering.
“Please accept that the public really does care about a transparent and fair redistricting process,” said Cindy Elmore of Greenville. “We want to see a process that does not consider partisan data, like voter registration levels, or voting histories or an incumbent’s places of residence.”
“We are tired of the gerrymandering that no one can pretend has not happened in this state,” she said. “We are tired of the millions of dollars of our tax dollars, our money, being spent on defending indefensible partisan gerrymandered maps and we are tired of the justification always being ‘well the other side did it first,’ which is what children say.”
Elmore and others saw the state’s history of gerrymandering as a red flag that legislators will have to avoid. They directed that concern to Senate Redistricting and Elections Chairman Jim Perry of Lenoir and Wayne counties, as well as Sen. Don Davis of Pitt County and Rep. Linda Cooper-Suggs of Wilson County.
“Lastly, we are tired that North Carolina has become the country’s poster child for partisan gerrymandering,” Elmore said to applause from the audience.
Almost as soon as the forum began, concerns were raised about its timing.
“I am disappointed that you picked three o’clock in the afternoon on a workday,” said Mary Anne Watson of Greenville. “You eliminated how many people can participate in this. I am here on my lunch break, but many people do not have the privilege to do that, so you eliminated their input with the timing of your event.”
Another speaker questioned holding the event on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday often called “the Sabbath of all Sabbaths.” Alex Urban asked why there were no Spanish language assets accompanying the 14 hearings across eastern North Carolina.
In that vein, speakers asked that more forums be held as the redistricting process develops so the public can have visual representation of what is being proposed.
“Dare to be different,” said Mark Parker, representing Citizens Advocating for Racial Equity and Equality (CAREE). “We all really came here to see something on that screen (and) talk about it versus just seeing what we feel.”
The lawmakers did not bring with them draft maps for the audience to view. The state’s congressional and legislative districts must be redrawn every 10 years to ensure their population is balanced and meet Constitutional population requirement. Growth in North Carolina’s population give it a 14th congressional district this year.
“Give us a chance to talk about our options,” Parker said. “We do not have options right now. We do not have any information. We need to make change and it starts with you guys,” he said.
Parker’s request for more time to weigh in was seconded by others, including Holden Spain, second vice chairman for the Pitt County Republican Party, attorney Charles McLawhorn and Marques Thompson of Pitt and Martin counties.
Sen. Davis said he plans to take back what he heard to the General Assembly.
“I think a lot of people are anxious; they want to see how their communities might be impacted and what this could really mean,” Davis said. “It was really important to see the crowd coming out today and to hear from the crowd that we must be open and transparent as we work towards a fair map. That was a word that I heard often as well.”
Davis said that no maps have been drawn, but joint meetings of the Senate Committee and House Redistricting Committee have yielded criteria to approach that process. He also noted that Pitt County’s growth in recent years has been considered.
“When you look internally in the county, we have experienced enormous growth,” Davis said. “In fact, we are one of the few counties in the east that experienced growth. The vast majority have actually declined.
“I can see where concerns may surface, and it is a concern we have to worry about at all levels,” he said. “It is not just the legislative districts but also counties across the state preparing to redraw districts and municipalities that actually have districts.”
Pitt County Reps. Chris Humphrey, Brian Farkas and Kandie Smith attended the forum as guests. All three said they were pleased with the community turnout. Humphrey said that changes need to be made if more redistricting hearings are held locally.
“I took lots of notes and agree that we should be live streaming the hearing so that others can participate in the process,” Humphrey said. “It is important to hear from citizens and take their sincere input into consideration. Redistricting is complicated and I look forward to working to make the process as transparent and inclusive as possible.”
Farkas said that he will advocate for bipartisan support and for a map to be shown at any future forums. Smith seconded the need for a map, as well as transparency cutting down on confusion caused by redistricting.
“If you are voting in one district and the person across the street is voting in another, you are bound to have confusion,” Smith said. “I am glad our community came out and represented.”