Analysis: A No-Good, Very Bad State House Map

October 27, 2021

Part 1 of 2: The proposed Republican State House map is an aggressive partisan gerrymander. Here we go again.

This post is Part One of a 2-part series analyzing the newly proposed Republican redistricting plans. This post reviews the State House proposed plan. Part Two looks at the State Senate.

On October 22nd, Republican leaders released their final proposed redistricting plan for the North Carolina State House. (Most observers expect proposed plans for the State Senate and Congressional districts any day.) These redistricting plans, if enacted, would shape the partisan composition of the North Carolina legislature – and, thus, its political destiny – for the next decade.

After reviewing the State House plan (HBK-11 for those following along at home), we conclude that it is an odious and blatant partisan gerrymander. (Note: the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project agrees.) This map is engineered not only to deliver reliable majorities to Republicans regardless of votes earned, but it also engages in remarkably petty personal score-settling. What follows is our analysis of the most objectionable parts of the proposed Republican State House plan.

Note: readers can follow all of this analysis in Dave’s Redistricting App at this link.

Overview

The proposed Republican State House plan would produce:

  • 56 solid Republican districts

  • 40 solid Democratic districts

  • 24 “competitive” districts

In this analysis, “competitive” means any district with a gap between historic Republican and Democratic performance of 10 percentage points or less. So a 44%/53% Democratic/Republican district would be “competitive,” while a 56%/44% Democratic/Republican district would be “solid Democratic.”

There are 120 seats in the North Carolina State House. Thus, under this plan, Republicans would only be 4 seats shy of a majority (60) right from square one. Moreover, 72 seats are required for a three-fifths supermajority, which is required to override the Governor’s veto power. Under this plan, Republicans would have to win only 16 of 24 competitive districts to clench a supermajority. Democrats, on the other hand, would have to win 21 competitive districts just to win a bare majority. Recall – North Carolina’s actual votes for the State House are almost perfectly divided 50/50.

Before kicking off, there is one critical piece of information readers must understand. Map drawers are required by law to draw districts of approximately equal populations in adherence to a “one person, one vote” principle. Because exactly equal district sizes would be impossible, courts have settled on a permissible variance of 5% over or under the ideal district size. While necessary, this unfortunately provides significant opportunities for partisan mischief. By strategically including/excluding specific voting precincts while still staying under the 5% variance limit, map drawers are able to swing the partisan leanings of whole districts, as we shall see.

Moreover, when this is done in fast-growing areas, districts can quickly grow much larger than their ideal size in the intervening decade before the next round of redistricting, effectively disenfranchising residents there. (Since the 2011 redistricting, several districts in the state have grown 20, 30 or even 45 percent.) With this in mind, pay close attention to which types of districts are drawn close to the 5% population variance limit – it’s a clue that drawers are “packing” voters into them and render their growth politically irrelevant for a decade. All of the architects of this map are Republican.

That all said – let’s dive in. We begin in the southeast.

New Hanover

The New Hanover-Brunswick county grouping provides few surprises. Rep. Deb Butler’s seat in Wilmington (HD-18 in the old maps, HD-19 in the new) is even safer in this map. What is notable is that the size of her district is quite large. As drawn, HD-19 is 4.89% larger than the ideal district size, right near the limit and the second-highest variance in the state. Wilmington is quite heavily Democratic and growing. This map packs Democratic precincts into HD-19, while giving up a Republican-leaning one to HD-22 (GOP Rep. Ted Davis). This has the effect of making Davis’s erstwhile competitive district somewhat safer GOP than it is today. It also allows the two remaining New Brunswick House districts to remain extremely safe GOP.

Pitt

In Pitt county, Republicans found an opportunity to shift a highly competitive seat to one that leans strongly GOP through strategic subdivision of the county. In this map, Pitt’s Democratic-leaning precincts were shifted to Rep. Kandie Smith (HD-8), turning her district from D+20 to closer to D+30. By doing so, Pitt’s other district, HD-7 (HD-9 in the old map), won in 2020 by Democratic Rep. Brian Farkas, turned from D+1 to R+7. While still technically in the “competitive” range, this seat is now a top-priority pickup target for Republicans.

Cumberland

As one of the state’s larger counties, Cumberland too is not combined with any other county, so drawers’ main challenge was again to determine how to subdivide it. The new map is careful to maintain the existing balance: two safe Democratic seats (HD 27/28) and two competitive ones held by Republicans (HD 25/26). It’s interesting to note that both districts 25 and 26 are drawn to be among the “smallest” in the state – their respective population variances are -4.66% and -4.64%, right at the legal limit. The reason for this is that the only options for adding population to 25 and 26 would be from heavily-Democratic districts 28 and 27, which would make either competitive district much friendlier to Democrats. As drawn, the Cumberland map is essentially defensive, packing in Democratic votes while safeguarding competitiveness for GOP Reps. John Szoka and Diane Wheatley at the expense of more balanced populations.

The Triangle – Wake and Durham

The great challenge for GOP map-drawers in Wake and Durham counties is how to carve out Republican seats in the bluest area in the state. Wake gained two new House seats in this cycle due to population growth, which made this challenge just a bit easier. One priority for GOP map-drawers was to protect GOP Rep. Erin Paré (HD-40; HD-37 on the old map) in southern Wake. This map delivers Paré into hard-to-beat territory, changing her district from R+2 last year to R+7. (The district also has a very high 4.45% variance over the ideal district size, resulting from scooping in additional Republican precincts.) Map drawers also got an opportunity to play offense with Democratic Rep. Terence Everitt (HD-35 on both maps). Everitt is a consistent thorn in the side of Republican leaders, so it was no surprise to see his district redrawn significantly from D+5 to a new R+3. While his own district size is close to ideal, his closest neighbors – districts 36 and 45 – are both severely underweighted, with variances of -4.39% and -4.37%, respectively. One can see the play here: rather than balance the districts closer to equal populations, drawers chose to move Republican-heavy precincts into Everitt’s district to make it harder for him.

The Durham-Person county grouping made it necessary for Republicans to sacrifice GOP Rep. Larry Yarborough, who we wish a pleasant retirement. This map creates a new, D+5 District 51 that includes all of Person county and northern Durham. Districts 48, 49 and 50 – all solidly Democratic – are all among the most over-sized in the state, each with variances of about 4.8% and higher. These districts were kept oversized specifically in order to make 51 at least somewhat competitive.

Chatham and Randolph

Chatham county includes one of the most blatant examples of personal targeting by Republican map drawers. Chatham is currently represented by the Democratic Minority Leader, Robert Reives, and Republican map drawers have gone out of their way to target Reives’ seat (HD-56 – shown here in blue). In this map, they have added 3 new Randolph county precincts to Reives’ district – including just one that adds thousands of Republican votes (circled in red). Though these new precincts expand HD-56 way over size (to 4.82% variance), their addition turns the district from safely Democratic to just D+1 – highly competitive. Even more telling is that the neighboring districts – like HD-60 and HD-57 – are severely under-size, at -4.55% and -4.51%, respectively. This strategic precinct inclusion thus makes Reives’ seat much more difficult for him at the cost of throwing all the districts’ populations way out of balance.

Once again, we see Republican map drawers intentionally undersizing Republican districts in order to strategically inflate Democratic-leaning ones to become more competitive.

UPDATE, 11/2: After overwhelming negative feedback in the press, GOP map drawers removed this precinct from HD-56 in an amendment and added it back to HD-60. Just its removal alone moves Rep. Reives’ district from a D+1 to D+7.

Triad – Guilford and Forsyth

In the Triad area, Republicans have the same challenge they do in the Triangle: carving up a Democratic-trending area to protect GOP seats. And this is precisely what the proposed map does. In this map, the previously competitive southwest Forsyth (the old HD-74, which was R+4) is now a larger R+8 version in HD-70. In eastern Guilford, the old HD-59 (R+3) has been lightly modified to become R+6 (HD-62). In both counties, the solidly Democratic urban districts mostly remain the same. Thus, Republicans lock in very GOP-favored districts in otherwise Democratic counties.

Mecklenburg

Carving Republican districts out of Mecklenburg county presents a formidable problem. Yet even here, Republican map-drawers have risen to the challenge. In northern Mecklenburg, the new HD-89 has been redrawn without several of the precincts included in the old HD-98, resulting in a seat that goes from R+2 to R+4. While still competitive, it’s now been made a bit less so, allowing GOP Rep. John Bradford to breathe a little easier. In eastern Meck, Republicans have also carved out the new HD-100 to encompass “The Wedge” with an R+4 advantage. This will allow Republicans to compete a bit easier at the fringes of Mecklenburg county, where the party has otherwise collapsed.

Watauga and Ashe

In the northwest, the new map puts an end to a once-competitive district. By shifting two Watauga precincts into the safely Republican Caldwell district (by coincidence, home of the Republican House Redistricting Chair, Rep. Destin Hall) and combining it with Ashe and Alleghany counties, the new HD-111 is R+14, compared to the old HD-93, which was R+10. This moves it out of the feasibly competitive range.

Buncombe

In Buncombe county, Republicans continue to move the ball. Here, bright-blue Buncombe is carved up into two safely Democratic districts (HD-115 and 116) and one R+8 (HD-117), which likely results in a net Republican pickup. It’s unclear how the new lines affect Democratic Reps. Brian Turner and Susan Fisher (old HD-116 and 114 respectively), but their residency in the new districts could also be an issue.

Conclusion

As drawn, this State House map will not survive even the most generous court scrutiny – and it will long before fail any reasonable ethical standard. It is drawn with plainly partisan intent to guarantee a Republican majority and make a supermajority all the likelier. Such a map might be reasonable if it reflected actual voters’ intent – but this one does not. In the 2020 election, North Carolina voters awarded 49% of the two-party vote to Democrats, and 50% to Republicans, as we have covered earlier.

Of course, this is the real world, in which North Carolina’s legislature is not determined by proportional representation. Yet it would be trivial to draw a fairer map that more accurately reflected the will of North Carolina’s voters – as indeed, many others have. Republicans have simply chosen not to do so. Instead, they have once again opted for a naked power grab in the form of a ham-fisted gerrymander. North Carolina will be all the poorer for it.

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