Power at Any Price: North Carolina’s latest gerrymander

October 23, 2023

Summary:

  • The new legislative maps are a wildly aggressive Republican gerrymander
  • Republicans have significantly reduced the number of competitive races across the state
  • The maps are fundamentally unfair and, as such, delegitimize the legislature they seat

 

North Carolina’s new Congressional and legislative election maps are aggressively partisan Republican gerrymanders.

This is so plain and demonstrable a fact that even Republican leaders have not really bothered denying it since the maps dropped last week. Republicans are gerrymandering North Carolina’s election maps for partisan advantage simply because we can, says the Art Pope-John Locke Foundation. “Political considerations are now allowed to be used as one of the criteria,” said Republican State Senator Warren Daniel, a lead map-drawer. They are, of course, technically correct about this. Yet admitting so openly to rigging North Carolina’s democratic process is quite a departure from the elaborate pantomime staged last year, when Republican leaders pretended to take into account factors like compactness and communities of interest. It speaks volumes that virtually no Republican spokespeople have even bothered defending the fundamental fairness of these maps in public. Everyone concerned, it seems, knows the score.

A redraw of North Carolina’s Congressional maps has been long awaited. But not so for the state legislative maps. North Carolina’s State Senate and State House maps were wholly and duly drawn and passed by Republican legislative leaders alone in February of last year. As such, the plainest reading of Article II, Sections 3 and 5 of the North Carolina State Constitution explicitly prohibits altering them now – most especially the House map, which was not even challenged in court. Yet that is precisely what Republican leaders of the legislature have done, with the full acquiescence of the new Republican majority of the state supreme court. This marks a major breach of constitutional order in our state.

Yet with the maps now about to be enacted, we must turn to their immediate effects. We will focus our attention on the legislative maps, since there is much more written nationally about the Congressional ones. To state the obvious: the new legislative maps are odious partisan gerrymanders. Only North Carolina’s broad general shift towards Democrats over the last decade has prevented the Republicans from rigging themselves a safe supermajority outright. Even so, Republicans have drawn maps that all but assure themselves majority control of the legislature for years to come, barring significant Democratic over-performance. This is a truly remarkable result in one of the country’s most closely divided purple states, but sadly one we have come to expect from some of the most cynical politicians in the country.

Interactive maps:

We will first cover the State House, and then turn to the State Senate.

State House

Republicans start out with 55 safe or likely seats, and another 14 that lean their way. Democrats begin with 43 safe or likely seats, and 3 leaning their way. This leaves only 5 toss-up seats out of 120 total in the chamber.

In this map, Republicans outright eliminated 4 safe/likely seats for Democrats, made several tossup seats much less competitive, resorted to truly bizarre shapes to target disfavored Democratic members, and generally gave Democrats a much longer road to reaching parity in the chamber. There are many fewer competitive races overall. We profile just 11 counties here, which collectively account for 44% of all registered voters in the state.

Wake county: Wake county, the state’s largest by population, has 14 representatives in the state house, 13 of whom are Democrats. Republicans’ goal in Wake was twofold: to protect their long-running gerrymander in southeast Wake, currently held by Republican Rep. Erin Pare (who has since announced she is quitting the legislature), and to once again attempt to unseat Democratic Rep. Terence Everitt in northern Wake. Everitt, whose prominent criticism of House Speaker Tim Moore got him banished to a basement office, has turned back multiple heavily-financed challenges.

Rep. Everitt’s House District 35 was stretched to encompass virtually every remaining vaguely Republican-leaning precinct in northern Wake, extending all the way from Falls Lake in the west to Knightdale in the east, and gutted to remove much of Democratic-leaning Wake Forest. Everitt will, once again, face a competitive election.

House District 37, in southeast Wake, was designed specifically to send a Republican to the State House. It has been reconfigured to protect whatever Republican candidate chooses to run for the seat in 2024, by strategically removing Democratic-leaning precincts from Holly Springs and adding them south of Garner in the east. (This also has the effect of making House District 33, held by Democratic Rep. Rosa Gill, safer Democratic.) Even drawn for maximum Republican advantage, HD-37 will likely be hotly competitive in 2024.

Pitt county: in Pitt, Republicans redrew House District 8 (Democratic Rep. Gloristine Brown) to pack in many more Democratic voters from Greenville. This had the net effect of making HD-8 a significantly safer Democratic seat, while making House District 9, one of 2020’s most competitive, much safer for the Republican incumbent, Rep. Timothy Reeder.

Alamance county: The previous House District 63, encompassing both Graham and the largest part of Burlington, was highly competitive. In 2022, the Democratic incumbent, Ricky Hurtado, lost re-election by a small fraction to Republican Rep. Stephen Ross, who he’d defeated by a similarly small margin in 2020. Alamance is steadily moving more Democratic, and can no longer support two safe Republican seats. But by splitting Burlington differently, Republicans have ensured two districts that lean Republican instead, instead of one that is highly competitive and one that is safe.

Guilford county: Guilford as a whole is strongly Democratic, going for Biden by 23 points. It previously held four Democratic seats and two highly competitive ones, House Districts 59 and 62. This redraw featured classic “packing” of Guilford’s Democratic voters into 4 even more extremely Democratic districts in order to produce two strongly Republican-leaning districts, including the new HD-59, which wraps around three-quarters of Greensboro.

Forsyth county: Republicans faced two issues in Forsyth: it is a Biden +14 county whose rapid growth on both east and west ends threatened to endanger the Republican incumbents in House Districts 74 and, eventually, 75. In this redraw, Republicans have “fixed” this problem by extending both 74 and 75 northward into solidly Republican rural districts, and compensating by absorbing some of Winston-Salem’s heavily Democratic precincts into the large and safely Republican HD-91 to the north. Forsyth will have very few competitive legislative elections for at least a few cycles.

Cumberland county: The rapid growth in and radiating out from Fayetteville has steadily been moving eastern Cumberland towards Democrats. After Republicans flipped House District 43 in 2020, they held on to it in 2022, but that hold was increasingly tenuous. In this redraw, many of the heavily Democratic precincts in downtown Fayetteville were moved over into House District 44 (held by Democratic Rep. Charles Smith), resulting in an HD-43 that is much safer for the Republican incumbent.

New Hanover county: New Hanover has long been one of our most closely-watched counties politically, as rapid growth has dramatically changed the area. In 2022, New Hanover went Democratic for the very first time, choosing Cheri Beasley over Ted Budd in that year’s U.S. Senate race, and House District 20 was among the most competitive in the state. In this redraw, the county’s Democratic voters were packed closely into House District 18 (held by Democratic Rep. Deb Butler), and HD-20 was completely redrawn to be several points safer for the Republican incumbent.

Cabarrus county: One of the fastest-shifting counties in the state politically, Democrats flipped House District 73 in 2022, dashing Republicans’ hopes to win a legislative supermajority. (Of course, they later clenched one anyway after the GOP’s deception in the form of Rep. Tricia Cotham’s party switch was revealed.) In this redraw, Republicans have attempted to thwart the Democratic breakthrough there by strategically grouping Democratic-leaning precincts near the Mecklenburg line (including many of the county’s Black voters) with solid Republican white, rural precincts in its east. HD-73 now leans Republican, and HD-82 even more so.

Mecklenburg county: the state’s second-largest county is a conundrum for Republicans, much like Wake. It is simply very difficult for Republicans to win there. This is why the GOP engineered a bait-and-switch maneuver with Tricia Cotham, who was rewarded for her work with House District 105, an ugly and unsubtle district in the southeast. HD-105 is barely competitive, and will likely flip Democratic in 2024, but was the best attempt to carve a competitive house district out of the area. Up north in the Huntersville area, map drawers did all they could to make House District 98 more Republican, but there was simply very little to do. Both districts will be front-line races in 2024.

Buncombe county: in this Biden +21 county, Republicans managed to carve out a Republican-friendly seat only by packing Asheville’s famously liberal voters and wrapping a district two-thirds of the way around the city. The new House District 116, where Democratic Rep. Lindsey Prather resides (Rep. Caleb Rudow now finds himself in the new HD-114, and Rep. Eric Ager in the new HD-115), will be very competitive in 2024.

Now, we turn to the State Senate.

State Senate

In the Senate, map-drawers are somewhat more limited by the Stephenson county-grouping process. This has not proven to be a very effective hedge against partisan gerrymandering in the past, however, and nor has it in this map.

Eastern NC: Since most of the counties down east are relatively small and sparsely populated, many must be combined together to constitute a single Senate district. The aforementioned Stephenson process produces a couple of ways to do this. In this redraw, Republicans opted for a truly bizarre option, which extends in a curving single-county line that stretches all the way from Emerald Isle up to Warrenton on the Virginia border. This has the effect of producing two very Republican-leaning districts (SD-1 and SD-2), instead of one highly competitive one (Senate District 3, below on the left) and another strongly Republican (the old SD-1).

New Hanover county: New Hanover features arguably the most blatant case of racially-based gerrymandering in this redraw. To balance district populations, Brunswick and Columbus counties must be supplemented with a small slice of New Hanover in any case. On the 2022 map, this resulted in an extremely competitive Senate District 3 in New Hanover, which Republican State Sen. Michael Lee narrowly won. In the redraw, this small slice was edited to scoop out – one might say with surgical precision – most of the Black voters from Wilmington, and move them into the solidly Republican SD-8. This has the effect of making SD-7, while still competitive, much more comfortable for Lee.

This graphic shows precincts by percentage minority population.

Cumberland-Moore counties: In the 2022 map, the Cumberland-Moore county group was arguably the best example of how the county grouping process itself results in some bizarre outcomes. The old Senate District 21 was, by virtue of its inclusion of part of Fayetteville, a reasonably competitive district, as well as a Democratic-leaning SD-19 (comprising the rest of Cumberland county). The new map does away with this competitiveness. It packs Fayetteville’s Democratic voters into a newly safe SD-19, and creates a very safely Republican SD-21 that wraps around the rest of the county.

Wake county: Once again, Wake county poses a challenge for Republican gerrymander-drawers. It is simply a very Democratic county. Republicans had two obvious goals in Wake: to draw out Democratic State Sen. Sydney Batch from Senate District 17, where she has proven formidable. They did this by comically wrapping around her home precinct and looping it into western Wake, in a totally new (and very safely Democratic) SD-17. The new SD-13, in southern Wake, has a bizarre new shape that extends clear across the county in an attempt to make it more Republican. Even so, it will still likely go Democratic. To allow for SD-13’s bizarre shape, SD-14 was contorted even more bizarrely, narrowing to just about 1,000 feet in Knightdale before reaching to Wendell.

In northern Wake, after repeated electoral disappointments, Republicans have gone all-out to carve out a seat they can  feasibly win. Democratic State Sen. Mary Wills Bode, in Senate District 18 (shown in darker blue in northern Wake) will once again have a frontline district that reaches this time all the way to Zebulon in eastern Wake.

Mecklenburg county: Much like in Wake, there are simply few good options for Republicans in Mecklenburg county. But they have done their best: sculpting another bizarre district in the new Senate District 42 in southeastern Mecklenburg, a classic gerrymander shape that loops in every Republican-leaning precinct possible (which still results in a Democratic-leaning district). This map also eliminates Democratic State Sen. Natasha Marcus, double-bunking her with the solidly red Iredell Senate district. Some might recall that Republicans threatened Marcus in 2021 with exactly this scenario if the Mecklenburg delegation voted against their gerrymander then.

Conclusions

The new legislative maps, assuming they are enacted as drawn, are what they are: obvious and aggressive partisan gerrymanders. They do not, and will not, reflect the will of North Carolina’s voters, because they have not been designed to do so. Rather, they have been designed for the purposes of wielding raw political power.

Article 1, Section 2 of North Carolina’s state constitution reads: All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole. These are just words, but they embody an essential idea of representative government – by, for, and of the people – that most Americans typically endorse. These election maps fail that basic test.

A properly independent state or federal judiciary, in the full totality of its rightful role under our separation of powers, would immediately strike down these maps. Unfortunately, that is very unlikely to happen, and North Carolina is poorer for it. People may be sovereign, but the government that rules over them exists nevertheless. Nevertheless, these maps’ fundamental unfairness render any future North Carolina state legislature elected on them, as well as the laws and actions passed therefrom, fundamentally illegitimate. They will speak not for the will of the voters of North Carolina, but for the narrowly partisan whims of the few.

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