Analysis: State Senate Plan is Unrepresentative and Distorted

November 2, 2021

Part 2 of 2: The proposed Republican State Senate map is just as aggressive a gerrymander as the State House plan.

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

Much like their proposed State House plan, Republican leaders dropped their proposed State Senate redistricting plan last Friday afternoon. This plan is based on the “SST-13” proposed map, shown in the image above. After carefully analyzing this map’s precinct-level composition, we at Carolina Forward conclude that it, like its State House counterpart plan, is a blatant partisan gerrymander. Once again, the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project agrees, giving it the grade of “F” for “significant Republican advantage.” Like its House counterpart, this map was engineered with a single goal in mind: to maximize Republican political power. It, too, is demonstrably unrepresentative of the clear intent of North Carolina’s voters.

Readers can follow along with this analysis and examine the plan for themselves on Dave’s Redistricting App.


The proposed Republican State Senate plan would produce:

  • 24 solid Republican districts

  • 17 solid Democratic districts

  • 9 “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 50 seats in the North Carolina State Senate. Thus, under their plan, Republicans would immediately be only 1 seat shy of a majority (25). Moreover, 30 seats are required for a three-fifths supermajority, which is required to override the Governor’s veto power. To clench a supermajority, Republicans would therefore have to win only 6 of the 9 competitive districts. Democrats, on the other hand, would have to win 8 competitive districts – almost a full sweep – just to win a bare majority. Recall – North Carolina’s actual votes for the State Senate are almost evenly divided: 48% to 51%.

What you need to know: Like the State House plan, the State Senate plan also has ideal district sizes, and 5% allowable variances from them. But unlike in the House, those variance sizes don’t have as much impact in the Senate. (The districts are, of course, much larger.) What does have a much bigger impact in the Senate composition are the county groupings.

The county grouping process is a bedrock principle for all of North Carolina’s legislative (but not Congressional!) redistricting plans, but it is very poorly understood outside the realm of hardcore political hobbyists. This explainer from Blake Esselstyn is probably the best single primer on it. Tl;dr – a state court case on redistricting from 2002 established something called the “Stephenson process” for dividing up groups of counties into “clusters” based on their population for the purpose of drawing legislative districts. So when you hear about “county groupings” (or “clusters”), this is what they mean. Groupings are determined from the latest Census data, and with a couple of exceptions, not up to lawmakers to decide. Here is a look at how the 2020 county groupings shook out.

It’s critical to note that while the Stephenson county grouping process is an important constraint on redistricting, it by no means prevents gerrymandering. It is quite straightforward – as we shall see – to draw maps with sharp and obvious partisan advantages within Stephenson constraints. The Stephenson county grouping process is not a neutral or particularly good way to go about the business of redistricting – but that is a topic for a different post. The Stephenson county groupings pre-determined much more of the State Senate map than it did the House. But Republican leaders took maximum advantage of their remaining discretionary wriggle room to manufacture a map that would advance their political interests and handicap those of Democrats.

With those caveats out of the way – we go Down East.

Eastern Carolina

The Stephenson county grouping left Republican map drawers effectively two options for how to slice up the northeast section of the state. The result, Senate Districts 1 and 2, are technically “competitive,” but lean heavily Republican. SD-1 is R+7, while the bizarrely-shaped SD-2 – reaching from Morehead City all the way up to Warrenton along the Virginia border – is R+9.

This grouping erases the “old” SD-3, which has a heavy concentration of Black voters and is D+7, and places its Senator – Ernestine Bazemore – in the new, very red SD-1. It represents a likely Republican net-pickup opportunity.

So does SD-4 and SD-5. In the new county groupings, Pitt and Edgecombe have been combined to create a very safe (D+14) Democratic district in SD-5. Meanwhile, SD-4 has changed to encompass Wilson, Greene and Wayne counties, creating an R+4 district:

Democratic Senator Milton Fitch, who represents both the “old” SD-4 and remains in the “new” version, thus goes from a D+18 district to a challenging R+4.

Moore and Cumberland counties were grouped together under Stephenson. Moore is heavily Republican, but also only a third the size of Cumberland. This meant that drawers could have constructed two competitive districts, or one very safe Republican and one safe Democratic one. Clearly, they chose the latter:

Democratic Sen. Kirk DeViere’s Fayetteville-anchored SD-19 moves to a lopsided D+32 in this map, while the rest of Cumberland is combined with Moore into SD-21, an equally bright-red R+19. One wonders what interests Hope Mills has in common with Pinehurst more so than Fayetteville. This is a strategy we will see repeated often.

Northern Border Counties

There are several county groupings along the Virginia border that combine relatively small counties with large, more urban ones. These include Granville-Wake, Rockingham-Guilford and Stokes-Forsyth. (This last one was actually a choice – map drawers had the option of combining Forsyth with Yadkin county to the west or Stokes to the north to create a single grouping.) In each of these, the smaller county must be kept whole and combined with some section of the larger urban county.

Granville, Rockingham and Stokes all lean Republican to varying extents. They are also all far smaller than the urban counties with which they’re combined. Stokes’ population is about 46,000, while Forsyth’s is 382,000; Rockingham, 91,000 to Guilford’s 541,000; Granville, 60,000 to Wake’s 1.1 million. This is relevant because those small, rural counties are used here as the starting points for carving out 2 reliable GOP senate districts, SD-31 (R+23) and SD-26 (R+25), as well as a GOP-leaning SD-13 (R+2).

In other words, even though each grouping as a whole massively favors Democrats, GOP map drawers have ensured the GOP will retain (or even pick up) seats. They do this by packing Democratic precincts together and gathering outlying ones into wider-ranging Republican districts. It bears mentioning that SD-26 is the seat of GOP Senate Leader Phil Berger.

Before we leave Wake, however, we turn from the northern part of the county to the south.

Much as they did on the State House map, GOP map drawers took the opportunity to further subdivide bright-blue Wake to strategically carve out new Republican opportunities. They clearly did so in the newly altered SD-17 in southern Wake, currently represented by Democratic Sen. Sydney Batch. This district now has a dead-even partisan lean. Republican drawers achieved this in part by keeping the district right at the edge of the minimum legally permissible size, with a population variance of -4.98%. Adding more precincts (from SD-14, 15 or 16) to balance out the population would’ve been impossible without tipping the district to be more Democratic. The GOP is clearly targeting Batch’s district for a pickup.


Mecklenburg county was combined with Iredell in the Stephenson grouping. This meant that bright-red Iredell, once again with a much smaller population (186,000 to Mecklenburg’s 1.13 million), would be kept whole in a single Senate district that included some of northern Meck. This completely changed Democratic Senator Natasha Marcus’s district, and placed her into the likely unwinnable (R+28) SD-37.

Just like they did in Wake, Republican map drawers found a way to carefully carve out a potentially competitive area in Mecklenburg, where the party has otherwise imploded. This is the rationale for the new SD-41 in the county’s southern “wedge.” SD-41 is a very competitive D+2 district. Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson, who currently resides in the district, is not running for his old seat, leaving this an open race.


With this map, Republican leaders’ goal was to expand their seat numbers to win not just a majority of the chamber, but preferably a supermajority. This map will strongly advance that interest. GOP map drawers have not only taken every available opportunity to claim new safely Republican seats, but have also created new feasibly competitive districts in Democratic-leaning areas as well.

To be clear: this map all but guarantees Republicans a majority in the State Senate. To win a supermajority, Republicans will not even have to win any district that leans Democratic – they would simply have to win the Republican-leaning ones (and one that is dead-even) to get to 30 seats. Just like the State House map, this plan is wildly unrepresentative of how North Carolina’s people actually vote and actively squashes their rights to fair political representation.

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