RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – State Rep. Jay Adams says he wants to do something about the significant legislative advantage he sees that big counties and cities in North Carolina have over their less-populated neighbors.

So Adams, a Republican member of the House from Catawba County, filed a bill to change how districts are aligned and votes are distributed – in the North Carolina Senate.

Rep. Jay Adams (R-Catawba) speaks during a committee meeting in the North Carolina House.

House Bill 376, entered last week, would redistribute senators from representing an equal number of voters (as House members do) to representing two counties apiece, which would mean that, for instance, one person could represent Mecklenburg and Gaston counties – about 2 million people – and one person could represent Caswell and Person, which is about 61,000, based on recent census figures.

While the whole idea may be in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court’s principle of “one person, one vote,” Adams said he knows all about that but that something needs to be done.

The idea for the bill emerged, he said, when one of his constituents in Hickory asked him why a museum couldn’t get an appropriation.

Adams said he told the man that “Charlotte-Mecklenburg has an 18-member delegation [in the state House and Senate]. We have a 3-member delegation [in Catawba]. Mecklenburg and Wake counties have a huge advantage. I started to think about a better way of doing things.”

HB 376 calls for lawmakers to draft and put on a ballot a constitutional amendment to change the Senate structure to the 1-sentator/2 counties setup.

The bill has four primary sponsors, including Adams, Karl Gillespie (R-Cherokee), Keith Kidwell (Beaufort) and Carson Smith (R-Onslow) and four cosponsors, including one from the Triad, Rep. Larry Potts (R-Davidson), who referred questions about the bill to Adams.

It has been assigned to the Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform Committee that includes Triad representatives Amber Baker (D-Forsyth), Brian Biggs (R-Randolph), John Faircloth (R-High Point), Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), Dennis Riddell (R-Alamance) and Jeff Zenger (R-Forsyth).

“I do not believe this bill will move forward as it is a direct violation of the NC Constitution.” Rep. Ashton Wheeler (D-Greensboro), the deputy leader of the House Democratic Caucus, wrote in an email to WGHP. “Further, it would give unequal representation for NC citizens which I do not believe is in the best interest of our state.”

Said Harrison about the bill: “It’s the opposite problem we have nationally with the Electoral College, where the rural states are controlling” the population centers.”

How it works

The constitution currently splits the state’s roughly 10.55 million residents among 50 senators, or about 211,000 per senator.

As a member of the House, Adams represents about 88,000 residents in District 96, or about half of Catawba County. District 89 Rep. Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba) has the rest, along with a portion of Iredell County, which has about 195,000 residents.

In the Senate, District 45 Sen. Dean Proctor (R-Catawba) represents all of Catawba’s 162,485 residents and some of Caldwell County’s 79,938. In Adams’ plan, having both counties would grow Proctor’s constituency by about 15%.

But if, say, District 41 Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) served her entire county and added another – even Union to the east – her representation would become more than 1.35 million, or about six times her current constituency.

Roots of Adams’ plan

N.C. Rep. Jay Adams (R-Catawba): ‘Why not have two counties each?’

Adams said he mirrored his bill with the federal arrangement of having two senators based on geography and the House based on population. And he sees this as a potential remedy for a national problem.

He said a friend told him to look up the “Little Federal Plan,” which is the historic principle for what he was proposing. He found a law brief about it that opened his eyes, he said.

“When you apply that, you find that the urban/rural divide exists in a number of states,” he said. “Colorado is run by Denver. … New Mexico is run by Albuquerque. … Chicago runs Illinois.

“Look at what’s going on in Oregon, where 63% want to secede and become part of Idaho.”

He’s referring to the “Greater Idaho bill” filed last month in the Oregon Senate in which 11 counites in eastern Oregon would be annexed by Idaho so they aren’t controlled by the state legislature in Salem.

“So I thought, ‘Why not two counties each?’” Adam said, and then he ticked off some reasons.

“We don’t have to redistrict the Senate races anymore.”

“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in North Carolina, but agriculture is the least represented industry in the Senate.

“In western North Carolina, we have a senator who reps eight counties. Kevin Corbin [District 50] says it takes two hotel rooms to represent his district.

“Bobby Hanig in the Eastern part of the state [District 3] has 10 counties.”

If you examine the Senate’s roster, 17 senators represent all or parts of three or more counties. But 21 represent only one county, and the remaining 12 cover two, as Adams prefers.

Legal impediments

But there is one itsy, bitsy legal impediment to this idea.

Michael Bitzer of Catawba College.

“By my read, this legislature would need an overturning of the 1964 US Supreme Court case of Reynolds v. Sims, where a lower court held that Alabama, with an apportionment akin to the US Senate (using counties as senate districts), was unconstitutional, due to violating the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection of the Law and the population disparities between districts,” political science professor/blogger Michael Bitzer of Catawba College – in Rowan County, not Adams’ home county – wrote in an email response to a question posed by WGHP.

“After considering the matter,” the ruling stated, “the court below concluded that no conceivable analogy could be drawn between the federal scheme and the apportionment of seats in the Alabama Legislature under the proposed constitutional amendment. We agree with the District Court, and find the federal analogy inapposite and irrelevant to state legislative districting schemes. Attempted reliance on the federal analogy appears often to be little more than an after-the-fact rationalization offered in defense of maladjusted state apportionment arrangements.”

Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University

Chris Cooper, a political science professor and elections expert at Western Carolina University – and Bitzer’s partner on the Old North State Politics blog – added that the idea “flies in the face of Baker v. Carr, which is widely understood to have established the ‘one person one vote rule.’

“So, putting aside for a second whether it would pass the General Assembly, or be approved by the people, the legal challenges would almost certainly be fatal to this bill if it were to become law.”

‘People, not trees’

Bitzer also cited the words Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote “in striking down Alabama’s plan to base representation on counties and not population:

“Legislators represent people, not trees or acres,” Warren wrote. “Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system. It could hardly be gainsaid that a constitutional claim had been asserted by an allegation that certain otherwise qualified voters had been entirely prohibited from voting for members of their state legislature. And, if a State should provide that the votes of citizens in one part of the State should be given two times, or five times, or 10 times the weight of votes of citizens in another part of the State, it could hardly be contended that the right to vote of those residing in the disfavored areas had not been effectively diluted. It would appear extraordinary to suggest that a State could be constitutionally permitted to enact a law providing that certain of the State’s voters could vote two, five, or 10 times for their legislative representatives, while voters living elsewhere could vote only once. And it is inconceivable that a state law to the effect that, in counting votes for legislators, the votes of citizens in one part of the State would be multiplied by two, five, or 10, while the votes of persons in another area would be counted only at face value, could be constitutionally sustainable.”

Chief justice Earl Warren and the eight Associate justices of the Supreme Court pose for this new photograph on Nov. 19, 1962, the first permitted in several years. From left, seated, are: Associate Justices Tom C. Clark and Hugo L. Black: Chief Justice Earl Warren: and Associate Justices William O. Douglas and John M. Harlan. Standing are: Associate Justices Byron R. White, William J. Brennan, Jr., Potter Stewart and Arthur J. Goldberg. (AP Photo)

A bigger problem now

Adams said he is familiar with all of that involving the 1964 Supreme Court ruling. “That was the Warren Court,” he said. “I am old enough to remember the billboards that said, ‘Impeach Earl Warren.’ I’m beginning to understand why.”

Adams said the debate about that case, which was a big moment in the civil rights movement of 1964, “went on for about two years prior to that ruling.’” Actually, it was argued on Nov. 13, 1963, and decided on June 15, 1964. Adams also said that one justice had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t vote, but the court’s vote was 8-1. He said the court “interfered with the electoral practices in 39 states.

“[Then-Sen.] Everett Dirksen [R-Ill.] fought this tooth and nail. He wanted to pass a constitutional amendment. … His argument is that you are going to vest all the authority in urban areas.

“That was not as much of an issue in 1964, but it does now. … We have a very large rural-urban divide. … It’s an unbalanced situation with representation on boards. I think of environmental issues. Our state tends to come up with one-size-fits-all answers for problems. Look at buffers along rivers. That’s a much different issue in eastern North Carolina than it is in western North Carolina. We don’t have the leverage of stronger relationships.”

Said Cooper: Georgia used to have a system that was designed differently, but had similar political implications — the county unit rule. It, like this bill, was a way to give rural people more voting power. The County unit system was struck down by the court in Gray v. Sanders because it violated the one-person-one-vote rule.”

Could it change?

Eric Heberlig of UNC Charlotte.

That said, Eric Heberlig, who runs the public policy program at UNC-Charlotte, summed it up this way, noting that the ever-important issue of courts acting more frequently because of political motivations.

“As noted, it’s clearly unconstitutional at present,” Heberlig wrote in an email. “Its only hope would be as a vehicle to overturn lots of Supreme Court precedent – Reynolds vs. Sims would be a big lift, but overturning the more general and widely applied principle of one person, one vote that underlies it would be harder. 

“Extending [Associate Justice] Clarence Thomas’ recent logic that we need to find historical antecedents, the Court could argue that this practice was common in states until Reynolds v. Sims and that the Warren Court was inventing law. The states themselves argued they were following a ‘federal analogy’ of the U.S. Constitution allowing geographic (rather than population-based) representation in their senate.

“I’m doubtful the Court would do this, but it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility anymore.”