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Revealed GOP district maps could add to Republican dominance

One of the proposed Congressional maps filed Wednesday
N.C. General Assembly
One of the proposed Congressional maps filed Wednesday.

The Republican-majority North Carolina General Assembly has released proposed legislative and U.S. Congressional district maps, plans that could add to the GOP's hold on power at the state and federal levels.

Two proposed U.S. Congressional district maps look like they could tilt a 7-7 split between Democrats and Republicans to 11-3 in favor of the GOP under one of the plans or 10-3 with one competitive district, in another one.

In presenting a plan for state House districts, Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, Watauga, said the maps are not designed to lock in a GOP majority for the next decade, regardless of what critics of the Republican-led process have predicted.

"What will determine if we have majorities in this body will be the principles that we've passed throughout this decade," Hall, who chairs the House Redistricting Committee, told reporters after his committee met on Thursday.

In the current legislative session, the Republican supermajority has passed legislation restricting abortion access and eliminated a permit requirement for purchasing handguns.

Unlike the redistricting process put in place after the 2020 census, Republicans did not hold as many public comment sessions prior to drawing maps this year and did not draw them in publicly viewable committee rooms.

Republicans did not use racial data in drawing new maps

At Thursday's meeting, Rep. Hall revealed the criteria and redistricting principles — some required by constitution, others by prior legal rulings — that GOP House redistricting leaders turned over to a hired map-making consultant.

That consultant is Blake Springhetti, the founder of Wyncroft Strategies, who has consulted with members of the legislative majority in Ohio on their maps.

According to Hall, GOP lawmakers instructed Springhetti to use an assortment of traditional redistricting principles to create a North Carolina House district map. Those principles include shaping districts with equal population, taking reasonable steps to keep districts compact, avoiding the splitting of municipalities and voting districts, and considering past election results.

As to the latter principle, Rep. Hall said Springhetti was instructed to use past election results from the following 2020 contests: President, Governor, Lt. Governor, U.S. Senate, and NC Attorney General. The consultant could also consider the 2022 contests for U.S. Senate and for the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Republicans did not consider racial data in the drawing of the new maps. Voting rights advocates and Democrats have argued this will result in gerrymandered districts that violate constitutional and legal protections designed to preserve the voting power of minority communities.

In a recent case, Allen v. Milligan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Alabama's Republican-led legislature violated such protections by drawing just one Black majority Congressional district where a second one could have been created.

Citing that decision, Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, argued it was a mistake not to consider racial data in the drawing of North Carolina's maps.

"I mean I'm not sure how these maps are going to comply with the Voting Rights Act if we haven't performed that Racially Polarized Voting analysis that is specific to local areas," Harrison warned, referring to a racial data-based analysis needed in some places where the ability of minority communities to elect a candidate of their choice must be protected under the VRA.

In the Senate Redistrict Committee meeting on Thursday, Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, expressed the same concerns as Rep. Harrison.

"I'm hoping that you make some kind of analysis on your own as you decide what the final configuration of these maps ought to be," Blue said to Senate Redistricting co-Chairman Ralph Hise, who repeatedly insisted that lawmakers were under no legal obligation to use racial data in drawing their redistricting plans.

Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, the House Majority Leader, left, talks with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Robert Reives, ahead of a House Redistricting Committee meeting on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023.
Rusty Jacobs
/
WUNC
Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, the House Majority Leader, left, talks with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Robert Reives, ahead of a House Redistricting Committee meeting on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023.

However, now that the maps have been drawn, GOP redistricting leaders said that they will instruct nonpartisan legislative staff to upload racial data into the map-making software so that legislators may assess for themselves whether there are any potential VRA violations in the new plans.

Critics say GOP-led process lacked transparency

Harrison also criticized the way Republicans ran the redistricting process this year. After the 2020 census, GOP lawmakers held more than a dozen public comment sessions and arranged for the drawing of maps in publicly viewable committee rooms. This year, they held three public comment sessions and the maps were drawn behind closed doors.

"I do think this process could have been much more transparent, with all due respect," Harrison said to Chairman Hall at Thursday's meeting.

While the maps were just released this week, the GOP plans have already drawn intense criticism from Democratic and voting rights advocacy groups.

“North Carolina is a highly competitive and evenly politically-divided state with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans now representing its citizens in Congress," Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General in the Obama Administration and Chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said in a statement issued to the media.

"This fair split is based on fair maps drawn within the very recent past," he continued. "Yet, these newest lines drawn by a highly partisan state legislature are created to diminish the voting power of the state’s most populous, diverse communities and erase competition between both parties for the rest of the decade."

And Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina, issued the following statement: “The legislature’s latest redistricting process has thus far been a total failure of transparency. A handful of politicians drew new districts behind closed doors, keeping the public in the dark. But lawmakers still have a chance to do better."

'All we got left is the judiciary,' top House Democrat said

In 2022, a Democratic majority on the State Supreme Court found Republican lawmakers violated state constitutional protections against excessive partisan gerrymandering and ordered new maps for that year's midterm elections only.

Republicans won a majority on the high court in the 2022 midterm elections and have since reversed that earlier finding, indicating the previous court overstepped its bounds by meddling in the political process of redistricting.

"I hope that everybody on judiciary understands how important their role is right now," said Rep. Robert Reives, the top Democrat in the state House, noting that Republican-passed laws have reduced the governor's executive authority to little more than "ribbon cutting."

"So, if we don't have an executive branch with any power all we got is the judiciary," Reives added. "I do hope that this isn't a partisan line issue. I hope that this is an issue that people will think strongly about, think deeply about, and make clear that we've got to do something to keep people's faith in government."

Republican leaders said each chamber will vote on the redistricting plans early next week and that the process should be complete by week's end.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.