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Ahead of redistricting hearings, NC voters tell lawmakers “Don’t twist our testimony”

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Ahead of redistricting hearings, NC voters tell lawmakers “Don’t twist our testimony”

Sep 25, 2023 | 11:32 am ET
By Keisha Dobie
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Ahead of redistricting hearings, NC voters tell lawmakers “Don’t twist our testimony”
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The author pleads with Republican state lawmakers to stop twisting the words of redistricting committee witnesses who call an end to partisan and racial gerrymandering.

The North Carolina Senate’s Redistricting Committee quietly announced last week that lawmakers would be coming to my hometown of Elizabeth City on September 25, at 4:00 p.m., to solicit the public’s testimony on this year’s redistricting process.

When I heard about this hearing — one of only two being held outside of Raleigh and the only public comment opportunity for the entire eastern region of the state — it brought back painful memories from the last time the legislature purported to host “the most transparent redistricting in North Carolina history.”

In 2021, my public testimony demanding better voting maps for the state’s northeastern corridor that I call home was manipulated by lawmakers to justify another round of racist and politically motivated gerrymanders. I submitted to lawmakers that I wanted to keep Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County whole, as part of a diverse community of interest that comes together across race and space to often vote together for candidates of our choice. But I also made clear that I did not want my district drawn in a way that could harm historically marginalized communities in adjacent counties.

Nevertheless, lawmakers did just the opposite, using my words against me.

As a redistricting expert, having helped locals draw municipal voting maps for city and county elections, I know well that when one community benefits from districts manipulated for the wrong reasons, communities next door can suffer. So, I’ll never forget during a Senate redistricting committee meeting in November 2021 when the committee’s co-chair invoked my name and testimony to justify carving out the state’s Black Belt border counties. They had placed them into an unfamiliar state Senate district stretching from Warren Co. on our state’s northern border to nearly 200 miles south in Carteret County.

Sad to say, I wasn’t the only one who had their testimony twisted.

Guilford County resident Martha Shafer gave multiple rounds of in-person and virtual public comment in 2021, telling lawmakers that the Triad region benefits when it has a single representative to address its distinct needs. Despite all of her attempts, the same Senate co-chair used Martha’s own comments to justify dividing up Greensboro in multiple ways to create a district that contained “all of High Point as Martha Shafer requested.”

They used the online testimony of Cumberland County’s Linda Devore for their own purposes as well. Linda pointed out that Fayetteville was the largest metro area in the state that was not represented in Congress by someone from that area. Lawmakers said Linda’s words had compelled them to, in a move completely unrelated to her testimony, group Cumberland, Harnett, and Sampson counties together when drawing gerrymandered congressional maps.

Maurice Holland, Jr., of Moore County, told lawmakers that the Sandhills region “is a vital community that must have a compact contiguous congressional district,” saying specifically that Moore, Cumberland, Scotland, Hoke, and Robeson “should not be separated from one another or split.” Lawmakers said his testimony justified keeping only half of those counties together, instead pairing Moore, Scotland, and Hoke with the exact counties Holland didn’t want with them: Anson, Montgomery, and Richmond.

All of us overcame blatant barriers to give this testimony. In 2021, lawmakers slashed the number of public hearings from previous redistricting cycles and buried details about the hearings that did exist. Despite all of our dedication to giving clear and actionable testimony and our participation — online and in-person — lawmakers didn’t listen. Worse, they only appeared to take advice from special interests who provided secret maps to guide drawing our districts — maps lawmakers lied about, stemming from documents that were later destroyed.

Still, these same legislators had the gall to mischaracterize North Carolinians’ public comments in order to justify extreme partisan gerrymanders that benefited them and hurt North Carolinians, including Black voters living in my region: eastern North Carolina.

Just last week, the legislature had the audacity to sneak into the state budget a new law that lets legislators hide their records from public view. They also ended a law that for the past 40 years has ensured the public would know what was considered in drawing legislative maps. This secrecy must stop. The People’s Business is the People’s Business.

Let’s all agree — no more surprises in 2023. We demand that they end these games, stop twisting our words, and instead use this time to expand public hearings from the paltry three they’re offering in September. Only then can they finally take into consideration the full range of public comment that North Carolinians have so willingly provided in past redistricting cycles.

On September 25, I’ll be the first in line at the Pasquotank hearing to tell lawmakers that North Carolinians like Martha, Linda, and Maurice deserve no less.