North Carolina lawmakers have begun posting draft versions of new congressional maps online, with the options so far indicating that GOP leaders are considering maps that could give their party a sizable advantage in future elections.
Democrats have only a thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, and if Republicans can flip control they can block Democratic President Joe Biden’s agenda. To do that, national GOP leaders may be looking to states like North Carolina for help in redistricting. The maps that Republican lawmakers here approve — likely within the next week or two — could be used not just in 2022 but in every election until 2032.
The state’s draft congressional maps now posted online include three that appear to have been drawn by GOP leaders of the Senate’s redistricting committee. Two would give Republicans a likely 11-3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, based on data from the 2020 presidential election analyzed by the website Dave’s Redistricting App. The other would likely create a 10-4 GOP advantage.
In 2020, North Carolina voters were almost evenly split between the two major parties, with a slight edge toward Republicans in many but not all statewide races. Republican Donald Trump won the presidential race here with 49.9% of the vote to Democrat Biden’s 48.6%, for example.
So a hypothetical 10-4 or 11-3 split would give Republicans a disproportionate amount of power in North Carolina’s congressional delegation.
However, each map would also have at least a few competitive seats — mostly Republican-leaning seats that Democrats might be able to flip, but also, less frequently, Democratic-leaning seats that Republicans might flip.
In one of the maps, half the seats would be competitive, according to Dave’s Redistricting App. It’s an 11-3 map for the GOP according to 2020 data but could hypothetically shift as far left as a 9-5 Democratic advantage, if Republicans lost all the right-leaning competitive districts and failed to flip any others.
‘Competitive across the state’
The state’s current congressional delegation — which has 13 seats instead of the 14 that North Carolina will have starting in 2022 — has an 8-5 GOP advantage, with just two competitive seats. Both lean right and were won by Republicans in 2020.
GOP leaders drew that in 2019, after two different versions of 10-3 maps they had previously drawn were struck down as unconstitutional for racial and partisan gerrymandering.
Republicans have defended lopsided partisan splits in the past, saying there’s no rule guaranteeing proportional representation and that they have a geographic advantage, too — since Democratic voters tend to live in large numbers in a few cities, while Republican voters tend to be more spread out in rural areas.
In a 2017 speech to the legislature, Senate leader Phil Berger said it wasn’t always like that, and that moderate Democrats did well in rural North Carolina for decades but began losing ground when the party became more liberal.
“If you’re going to be competitive across the state, you’re going to have to bring back the traditional North Carolina Democrat,” Berger said at the time, The News & Observer reported.
As an example of that shrinking Democratic footprint, Berger said that when Gov. Roy Cooper was first elected attorney general as a Democrat in 2000, he won 63 of North Carolina’s 100 counties — but 16 years later only won 28 counties when he became governor. The votes were still there for him, but more clustered geographically.
However, it’s not impossible to draw an evenly split map. Two potential draft maps posted to the legislative website, drawn by a Democrat, would each create a likely 7-7 split — based on the same 2020 data used to analyze the 11-3 and 10-4 maps. Those maps would each have four competitive seats, two leaning right and two leaning left.
Links to all five congressional maps, plus a sixth map for N.C. Senate districts, can be found on the Senate’s redistricting committee web page at www.ncleg.gov. The N.C. House, which also has a say in the maps, has not posted any of its drafts yet.
The analyses of those maps were done using data provided by the legislature, uploaded to the third-party Dave’s Redistricting App by an unnamed user and shared by a Twitter account that has been following the redistricting process. The shape of the maps on the third-party website appears to be the same shape as the maps on the legislative website, indicating they were not changed.
Public hearings announced
On Wednesday, after Senate leaders posted the initial draft maps, they also announced two public hearings next week for anyone who wishes to weigh in prior to a vote on the maps.
On both Monday and Tuesday, there will be in-person public hearings at the legislature at 3 p.m. There will be an online hearing at 5:30 p.m. both days as well for people who can’t make the in-person hearings.
There will also be options for people to call in remotely to the 3 p.m. hearings from specific college campuses around the state. Those options will be at Caldwell Community College and UNC-Wilmington on Monday, and at ECU and Central Piedmont Community College on Tuesday.
Leaders in the House also plan to hold hearings next week, although it’s not yet clear when.
Transparency in the process?
None of the maps on the Senate redistricting committee’s website indicate who drew them, and a spokesman for Berger said he didn’t know either. He also declined to comment further on the maps that have now been posted. But in recent weeks The News & Observer watched Republican Sens. Ralph Hise and Warren Daniel, who lead the Senate’s redistricting committee, work on at least two of the three maps that favor Republicans. The two 7-7 maps were both drawn by Democratic Sen. Ben Clark. They’re nearly identical except for two western districts.
The GOP-drawn maps tend to split up the state’s major cities into several districts, which spreads the cities’ population among various outlying rural areas. One map splits Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County into four districts, even though it only needs to be split between two. Clark’s map mostly keeps the larger cities together, which he said also results in regions of the state like the Piedmont Triad, northeastern North Carolina or his home area, the southern Sandhills, remaining together in a single district.
“It just makes perfect sense to do that,” Clark said.
The fact that the public knows who worked on the maps at all is a new phenomenon in North Carolina.
Political districts had always been secretly drawn behind closed doors, until 2019 when a trio of judges ruled the maps unconstitutional and forced lawmakers to adopt historic transparency — drawing the maps in full view of the public, both in person and streaming online.
Republican lawmakers voluntarily approved similar rules this year, even with the court order no longer forcing them to. People who want to watch can do so at the Legislative Office Building in downtown Raleigh, or at www.ncleg.gov/Redistricting.
“We could just simply have somebody draw these maps behind closed doors, as has been done in the past,” said Rep. Destin Hall, chairman of the House redistricting committee. “... We are voluntarily saying we don’t think that’s the best way to do this.”