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Triangle, Charlotte Account For Most of NC’s Population Growth

The U.S. Census Bureau has released new population data that will be used to reshape U.S. House seats and state legislative districts for the next decade.

The 2020 census data released Thursday shows that much of the fastest population growth occurred in the nation's largest cities, particularly the suburbs.

Between 2010 and 2020, North Carolina's population grew 9.5% to 10.4 million. During that same time, 51 North Carolina counties lost population and 49 grew.

With 1.13 million residents, Wake County is now the state's largest county, surpassing Mecklenburg as the most populous county in the state. Guilford, Forsyth, and Cumberland follow as the next most populous counties.

The five fastest-growing counties in the state from 2010-2020 were Johnston, Brunswick, Cabarrus, Wake, and Durham counties.

The Census also measures what it calls the "Diversity Index," a measure of how likely it is that two people drawn at random will be from different race and ethnicity groups. The index in North Carolina is just shy of 58 percent, which ranks the state 19th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Louisiana is one spot ahead of us, and Washington state one spot behind us. At the very top of this list are Hawaii and California, and at the bottom are Maine and West Virginia.

The diversity index is available by county as well. Robeson County has the highest likelihood that two people chosen at random will be from different racial or ethnic groups. Hoke, Durham, Mecklenburg, Cumberland, Scotland, and Guilford counties all had diversity indexes of 65 percent or higher. Generally, the mountain counties are less racially diverse than the counties along I-95. Most coastal counties rank somewhere in between.

The data will serve as the building block to redraw 429 U.S. House districts in 44 states and 7,383 state legislative districts across the U.S. The official goal is to ensure each district has roughly the same number of people.

But many Republicans and Democrats will be operating with another goal — to ensure the new lines divide and combine voters in ways that make it more likely for their party's candidates to win future elections, a process called gerrymandering. The parties' successes in that effort could determine whether taxes and spending grow, climate-change polices are approved or access to abortion is expanded or curtailed.

Republicans need to gain just five seats to take control of the U.S. House in the 2022 elections — a margin that could potentially be covered through artful redistricting.

"Redistricting really is the ballgame this cycle in the House," said David Wasserman, an analyst for congressional races at The Cook Political Report. "Even tiny changes to district lines could have huge implications that tip the balance of power in the House."

As they did after the 2010 census, Republicans will hold greater sway in the redistricting process.

The GOP will control redistricting in 20 states accounting for 187 U.S. House seats, including the growing states of Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. By contrast, Democrats will control redistricting in just eight states accounting for 75 seats, including New York and Illinois, where the loss of a seat in each gives them a chance to squeeze out Republican incumbents.

In 16 other states accounting for 167 U.S. House seats, districts will be drawn either by independent commissions or by politically split politicians with legislative chambers led by one party and governors of another. Six states have just one U.S. House seat, so there are no district lines to be drawn.

States with significant population shifts provide some of the best opportunities for parties to gain an advantage through redistricting. They can add a favorable district, eliminate one held by their opponent or redraw a competitive district to contain a more comfortable majority of supporters.

The redistricting process will be conducted on a compressed timeline. States are getting the data more than four months later than originally scheduled because of difficulties in conducting the 2020 census during the coronavirus pandemic.

That means map-drawers will have to work quickly to meet constitutional deadlines in some states or seek judicial approval to take longer.

This story will be updated as more data become available.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC data reporter, a position he took in September, 2016.
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