The Misrepresentation of North Carolina

October 4, 2021

North Carolina’s state legislature is widely known to be deeply gerrymandered. Its partisan makeup – solid Republican control for over a decade now – does not reflect North Carolina voters’ wishes, and nor does the state’s Congressional delegation. To better illustrate the disparity with (or, perhaps, contempt for) voters’ wishes, we made a simple graphical illustration of how votes cast in the 2020 election compare with the seat distribution:

In the 2020 election, more North Carolinians actually chose Democrats to represent them in the U.S. Congress than they did Republican candidates. Regardless, the GOP still won 8 (61.5%) of the state’s 13 seats. And Republican leaders are now widely rumored to be working on finding a way to draw a solidly Republican 14th Congressional district.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project put it bluntly:

In states where legislators draw maps but the court system has been historically inclined to intervene immediately when gerrymandering is identified, legislators are discouraged from drawing unfair boundaries. And in states where the governor has authority to veto gerrymandered maps, the research group found fewer aberrations.

“But I think in North Carolina we sort of see none of that happening,” Wheelen said, “and we see the legislature having control to get whatever lines they want passed in the next redistricting cycle. And so I think that’s what’s different, that’s what makes North Carolina feel so much worse. And it’s also combined with a history where North Carolina has been able to do this and it’s been part of the politics for so long.”


To be sure, Democrats were guilty of gerrymandering back when they controlled North Carolina’s legislature as well. One must go back nearly 20 years – 2001 – for an example of that, but it did happen. Yet even that requires some important caveats.

Democrats were either not very good at drawing gerrymanders in their day, or at least were not very aggressive with them. From 1995 to 1999, Republicans enjoyed a controlling majority of the State House, which they won under a Democratic-drawn map. This reflected political power commensurate with voters’ choices in the 1994 and 1996 elections. They again won a majority in the 2002 election for the State House – again, under a Democratic map – which then became a tie when one Republican member switched parties to caucus with the Democrats.

Longtime observers of gerrymandering will note that map drawers of that bygone era did not have access to the powerful software tools that allowed hyperspecific precinct-by-precinct mapping and forecasting, which has now become standard. But it was also the case that Democratic gerrymanders were not very “good” – that is, aggressive – simply because they did not need to be. Democrats of that era regularly won actual voter majorities, even from people who also voted for candidates like Republican Jesse Helms, the infamous racist demagogue. National partisan polarization of the likes of the 2020s had not yet emerged.

From the vantage point of 2021, such a world sounds alien to us now. Today, nearly all legislators in the General Assembly sit in districts custom-drawn to deliver them to victory by 20 or 30 or more points. Only 17 out of 120 members of the State House won their districts by 10 points or less in 2020. Most of these were Democrats, who are forced to compete in much more difficult districts than are Republicans.

To be sure, gerrymandering is not the only problem Democrats face in North Carolina politics. But it is still a very large one. Not only does Republican gerrymandering put them perennially on the verge of a legislative supermajority, but due to the nature of the caucus system and campaign finance, it directs enormous resources, money and media solicitude their way as well. The Republican gerrymander of North Carolina will not last forever. But absent federal action – which is clearly warranted – it could very easily last for a second decade, if not more.

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