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The General Assembly has passed GOP-drawn maps, setting stage for likely legal challenges

The North Carolina General Assembly has adopted new congressional and state legislative district maps that will likely cement a Republican stronghold on power for the next decade — unless, of course, the courts step in.

This week's passage of maps that heavily favor Republicans was inevitable.

But House Redistricting Committee Chairman Republican Rep. Destin Hall told lawmakers this year's redistricting process was historic for a number of reasons.

First, in addition to applying traditional criteria like keeping districts compact and avoiding the splitting of municipalities, Hall said lawmakers voluntarily elected not to consider past election data in the drawing of maps.

And Hall maintained that the process was conducted with an unprecedented level of transparency.

"With every single district that was drawn done so in full public view with live audio and live video in the committee room," Hall said Thursday, just before a party-line vote to adopt the congressional district map.

The top House Democrat, Rep. Robert Reives II, offered a very different view of the GOP-backed maps.

"A map that splits up Wake, Meck[lenburg], Guilford in the ways that it does, I think, again, is fairly unbelievable that people are going to think that's a fair map," Reives said during floor debate Thursday.

Without prioritizing any one redistricting criterion, Republicans say they tried to avoid splitting municipalities and counties where possible. In recent years, GOP maps were discarded for being unconstitutionally gerrymandered on the basis of race and extreme partisanship. This time, Republicans vowed not to consider race or election data.

"Following those criteria, we did our best to keep communities together," Sen. Ralph Hise, the Republican co-chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, said on Wednesday in floor debate over the newly createdSenate district map.

"That's counties, keeping them whole, municipalities, the cities and towns people call home, and precincts or — as more accurately in the system — voter tabulation districts."

But Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue suggest Republicans selectively applied certain redistricting criteria.

"And unless you're going to rank order them so that this one is of paramount importance, it leaves you room to just arbitrarily say that 'This is the criteria when I draw this district,' but let you still maneuver to create gerrymandered districts —gerrymandered for partisan preference," Blue said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

Blue and other Democrats offered several amendments to the state Senate district map this week, all were shot down. One amendment focused on two northeastern districts.

The GOP map creates a state Senate district that goes from Carteret County on the coast, heads north and then turns left to Warren County on the Virginia border. The newly-drawn district contains a sore-thumb-like protrusion made up of Chowan and Washington counties.

According to Blue, these lines dilute the voting power of Black communities by cracking them between two side-by-side districts. In floor debate on Wednesday, Blue said his alternative would have created more compact districts and safeguarded federally protected voting rights of the area's Black voters.

"The other way guarantees action on a constitutional and Voting Rights Act violation," Blue asserted about the GOP-drawn map.

Indeed, the NAACP and Common Cause of North Carolina already have filed a lawsuit on these grounds seeking to halt work on state legislative district maps.

The Republican-backed congressional map is just as skewed, according to critics like Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat. Harrison said the map carves up her county and separates neighboring Piedmont-Triad area cities like Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point.

"In ways that are splitting up the large African American populations and communities of interest, and it confounds me," she said in committee debate.

Based on previous voting patterns, the GOP-drawn map would result in a 10-4 congressional split favoring Republicans — even though democratic candidates for Congress in North Carolina earned more votes overall than Republicans in 2020.

Republicans argue their maps reflect the tendency among Democrats to congregate around urban areas.

But Duke University Professor and quantitative data scientist Jonathan Mattingly said that does not mean heavily skewed outcomes are a foregone conclusion. Mattingly said it is the way voters are either packed together in a few districts while being spread very thin in others that bakes in outcomes for years despite population changes.

"So this kind of flatness of response here is something very typical that we see, and this is really kind of one of the hallmarks of a map that's gerrymandered. And that will tend to underperform for one party," Mattingly said in a news conference Wednesday.

Mattingly presented his analysis that showed applying non-partisan criteria like compactness and minimizing county splits can result in more responsive maps, ones that over time reflect changes in voters' attitudes. This analysis is part of his quest to get the politics out of redistricting.

"This happens on both sides of the aisle, both parties do this across the country," Mattingly lamented. "And so I would like for us, as a country, to get out of the gerrymandering business."

But for now, it's business as usual. One side draws the maps, the other side sues.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.