North Carolina lawmakers have a long, bipartisan history of rigging election maps.
A new Supreme Court ruling says the maps must be made fairly for the voters.
Will newly drawn maps pass constitutional muster? And do they create new problems?
By Wednesday, a panel of judges will decide whether North Carolina’s 170 legislators obeyed a state Supreme Court order telling them to stop rigging election maps in favor of one political party or the other.
This past week the lawmakers drew new maps for the 120 state House districts, 50 state Senate districts and North Carolina’s 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ostensibly this is to make the elections more fair to the voters – but whether a map is “fair” often is in the political eye of the observer.
The lawmakers finished the new maps on Thursday evening for submission to court on Friday. A panel of three Superior Court judges has a deadline of Wednesday to decide whether to approve the new maps or reject them on the grounds that they violate the state Constitution. If the judges reject the legislature’s maps, they can replace them with maps they think are better.
Here are five things to know about what’s happening, and what it means for you as a voter:
1: If every eligible voter can vote, how can an election be rigged?
By manipulating the placement of the borders of the election districts, the people who draw the maps can skew the results.
This manipulation is known in political circles as “gerrymandering.” It’s named after an early 1800s American politician.
A 21st century example of gerrymandering: In 2001, the Democrats who controlled the North Carolina legislature were grumpy that Republican Robin Hayes held the 8th Congressional district. So when the Democrats revised the Congressional district maps, they put more precincts with Democratic voters into the 8th District — they gerrymandered the district in effort to make Hayes lose.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, Hayes had cross-party popularity. He hung on for three more elections despite the effort to gerrymander him out of office.
The Democrats also designed the legislative districts to try to protect and grow the total number of seats they held in the General Assembly.
Then in 2010 a “red wave” election smashed the Democrats. The Republicans took majority control of the legislature. This gave the GOP lawmakers control of the maps when they took office in January 2011.
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2: What did the Republicans do when they became the mapmakers?
After howling about the Democrats’ gerrymandering shenanigans, the Republicans played the same games with the voters as their predecessors. And they did it far more effectively.
The GOP lawmakers drew convoluted shapes to heavily fill a few districts with Democratic-leaning voters — these districts had so many Democratic voters that it was highly unlikely any Republican could ever win in them. The Republican voters and Republican candidates of those districts were the GOP’s sacrificial lambs to the party’s greater goal: Expanded majority control of the seats in Congress.
The voting demographics of the remaining districts were far more friendly to Republican candidates and unfriendly to Democratic candidates.
The GOP’s new maps were first used In the 2012 elections.
Democrats received 50.60% of the votes for Congress in that year’s election but won only four of the 13 seats.
The Republicans received 48.75% of the total votes and won nine of the 13 seats.
Lawsuits from Democrats in the ensuing years led to map revisions. The maps from the 2020 elections resulted in an 8-5 Republican-to-Democratic spit.
3: Should seats be awarded in proportion to the votes cast?
Some people think so.
And that’s one reason the Democrats sued the Republicans to stop the latest batch of maps, drawn this past fall, from being used in the 2022 to 2030 elections.
North Carolina’s population grew enough in the past 10 years to gain a 14th seat in Congress, so the new maps have 14 U.S. House seats.
Voting history data in Dave’s Redistricting App — a tool for mapping and evaluating election districts — indicates the 14-seat Congressional map the GOP majority drew for the upcoming elections had eight strong Republican seats plus two that have favored Republicans but that would be competitive. It says the Democrats had three strong seats plus one that has favored them but that would be competitive.
In short: The new map was generally seen as a 10-4 split of Republicans to Democrats, albeit with a total of three competitive seats in that mix.
Here is the map:
The 10-4 split is in a state that picked Democrat Roy Cooper for governor in 2020 and Republican Donald Trump for president.
The North Carolina Supreme Court rejected the GOP’s new maps.
The court said:
►The General Assembly infringes upon voters’ rights when, on the basis of partisan affiliation, it deprives a voter of his or her right to substantially equal voting power. This right is established by the free elections clause and the equal protection clause of the North Carolina Constitution.
►The gerrymandering also constitutes viewpoint discrimination and retaliation based on protected political activity, and this violates voters’ rights to free speech and freedom of assembly.
The Supreme Court decision was 4-3, with the four Democratic justices in the majority and the three Republican justices in the minority.
The Republicans assert the Supreme Court overstepped its bounds as authorized by the people in the state Constitution in ruling that the prior maps are unconstitutional. They said the Democratic justices were reading into the Constitution a concept of “equal voting power” among the voters that is not specifically stated in the Constitution.
Regardless, with that ruling, proportionality in election results became a driving factor in how the legislature this week revised the maps for Congress, for the state House of Representatives and for the state Senate.
4: Are the new maps fair?
That depends how you look at it.
From the standpoint of Democratic vs. Republican wins, the new map shows six districts where voters have strongly favored Republican candidates plus one where they have picked Republicans that would also be competitive for Democrats. It shows three strong Democratic districts plus four that have favored Democrats but would be competitive for Republican candidates.
This comes to a 7-7 split overall, with five of those seats being competitive between the two major parties.
This attempt at bipartisan fairness came with a side effect: Does the new map hack up communities of common interest in effort to achieve a bipartisan political goal in the same way that prior partisan-drawn maps over the years sliced-and-diced cities, counties, towns and communities?
Republican House Rep. John Szoka of Cumberland County was one of only two Republicans to reject the Congressional maps in the votes on Thursday. He is a Congressional candidate in the upcoming elections.
The new maps wrongly break up the greater Fort Bragg community between three districts, Szoka said. Fort Bragg is in Fayetteville, Cumberland County, Harnett County, Moore County and Hoke County. Cumbeland County, Hoke and Moore are in a second district and Moore County is in a third district.
Szoka also dislikes that Fayette was put in the same district as Wilmington. Other than pursuit of clean water from the Cape Fear River, the two communities have little connection, he said.
Other districts on the new map stretch similarly across the state. For example, the rural farmland of Columbus County — which has social and economic ties to Wilmington — is drawn into the same district as Charlotte’s suburbs in Union County and the central Piedmont region in Davidson County. The drive Denton in Davidson County on one end to Tabor City in Columbus County on the other end 156 miles.
5: What happens next?
The maps were to be turned into the courts on Friday and now the issue is before a panel of three judges. The three-judge panel is to consider whether to approve these maps or develop and turn in a different set of district maps no later than Wednesday.
Filing for the 2022 elections, which was paused by this lawsuit, is to restart on Thursday. The primaries are scheduled for May 17.
Senior North Carolina reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at 910-261-4710 and email@example.com.