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Here's What You Need To Know About Redistricting In NC

The eight-month long legislative session ended this week with a number of bills crammed into the end, including immigration restrictions and a $2 million transportation bond referendum
Wikimedia Commons
The eight-month long legislative session ended this week with a number of bills crammed into the end, including immigration restrictions and a $2 million transportation bond referendum

State lawmakers have started the process of implementing new political boundaries for the 2018 election, after federal judges invalidated 28 legislative districts for illegally gerrymandering black voters.How did we get here?

The original decision to strike down the state’s maps came from a three-judge panel nearly a year ago. Now, legislators have to hear public comments, determine criteria for drawing districts, and establish new political maps – all by early September.

How big are each of these legislative districts?

The “one person, one vote” doctrine requires electoral districts to be roughly equal in population. To do this, lawmakers are using population figures from the 2010 census, as required by law, to draw proportional seats. Based on those figures, the ideal population for a North Carolina House district is 79,462 people and a state Senate district is about 190,710 people. Lawmakers can deviate from those figures by +/- 5-percent.

Are lawmakers simply redrawing 28 legislative districts?

It’s not that simple. Changing the boundaries for those 28 districts will in turn alter the outlines for many of the neighboring seats. It remains unclear precisely how many of the political puzzle pieces will be redrawn, although we now have a glimpse of some changes that appear imminent.

Where do things stand right now?

Last Friday, lawmakers released the county groupings that will be used to draw new maps. Lawmakers are expected to keep counties fully intact whenever possible. These groupings give us an indication of how many seats are going to come out of which areas. As two examples, these groupings show that there will be 11 House seats drawn from Wake County; and that in the Senate there will be four seats between Guilford, Alamance and Randolph.

Do these groupings tell us anything else?

Yes. These county groupings signal that some lawmakers will be double-bunked, others presently serving in ‘safe’ districts will face a far more challenging path to reelection, and some of these groupings will provide opportunities for outside candidates in new districts. The county groupings are not expected to change.

Wait, what is ‘double-bunking’?

Way to not be a political nerd. Double-bunking is one of the key tactics available to lawmakers when it comes to drawing political boundaries. Historically, new maps offer those in power the ability to ‘double-bunk’ – pitting two incumbents against each other in one district. This sometimes happens to members of the majority party who are a thorn in the side of leadership, and also to members of the minority party – often who are strong fundraisers, or seen as up-and-comers. Double-bunking isn’t always fueled by a personal vendetta.

North Carolina law requires a political candidate to have lived in his or her district for one year prior to running for office. However, the court waived that constitutional requirement for this election cycle. Candidates must now reside in their district by the close of the 2018 filing period. In other words two incumbents can still get double-bunked, but one (or both) would have a few months to establish residency elsewhere, if they wanted to run in another district.

So, who’s getting double-bunked?

If you look at the county groupings, a political themed game of musical chairs emerges - there are several groupings that are going to have more incumbents than seats.

Okay, in the Senate?

In the northwest corner of the state there is an eight county grouping that includes three incumbents – Republicans Deanna Ballard, Phil Berger, and Shirley Randleman – but will yield just two seats once maps are drawn. Berger, the leader of the Senate and its longest current serving member will have a multiple county district, including his home of Rockingham. That leaves one seat for Ballard and Randleman.

And what about the House? Any double-bunking there?

Yes, an analysis shows two double-bunking scenarios: The simpler of the two is in Wilson County. Because lawmakers have to do their best to keep counties fully intact in this redistricting effort, Wilson County will stand alone and have one Representative. That means that Republican Susan Martin and Democrat Jean-Farmer Butterfield will be double-bunked. Wilson County leans Democratic, which gives the eight-term incumbent Butterfield an edge. Martin has been a strong fundraiser during her three terms in the House.

And the other?

Another double-bunking is expected to emerge out of a six-county grouping, or pod, that stretches from Davie southeast toward Richmond County. That grouping also includes Rowan, Cabarrus, Stanly, and Montgomery Counties. Six House seats will be drawn from this district, however, there are seven incumbents in this region – Republicans Julia Howard, Harry Warren, Larry Pittman, Linda Johnson, Carl Ford, Justin Burr, and Democrat Ken Goodmon. Howard and Goodmon – who live in the northern and southernmost reaches of this grouping, respectively – are unlikely to be double-bunked. Linda Johnson, a nine-term incumbent and chair of the powerful appropriations committee, is probably safe too. That leaves Warren, Ford, Pittman and Burr for three districts; two of them will likely be drawn in together.

What about these political opportunities?

As is typically the case during redistricting, there will be opportunities in both chambers for outsiders to land a seat. In the Senate there appear to be three such areas. A soon-to-be established district covering Rowan and Stanly Counties does not currently have an incumbent. Depending on what happens with that six-county, seven-incumbent situation over in the House, this could be enticing for Justin Burr, or Larry Pittman, if either gets double-bunked.

Another potential opening in the Senate, for a Republican, exists in the conservative leaning six-county grouping to the east and south of Raleigh. Three seats will be produced from Lee, Harnett, Johnston, Nash, Sampson and Duplin counties. Republicans Ron Rabin and Brent Jackson are incumbents in this region. So too is Democrat Angela Bryant, though the next district she lives in will be considerably more conservative than the one she lives in now.

And to the east, there is an 11-county grouping in the northeast portion of the state that will have one seat. It does not have an incumbent. This new district will lean Democratic and appears to be the largest geographic district in the state.

And some openings for House seats as well?

A couple of noticeable ones. Sticking in the east, Democrats are almost certain to claim a new six-county seat that runs from Bertie County, through Camden, to the Virginia border. A displaced incumbent here is Republican Bob Steinburg, who at first glance would be unlikely to compete for such a blue district. There is also a two-county grouping (Craven, Beaufort) that has just one incumbent, Republican Michael Speciale. Another seat in that conservative-leaning tract, is almost certain to go red.

Just how will the urban districts be sliced up?

Wake and Mecklenburg County are the largest population centers in our state. We know that there will be five Senate seats from each of these areas. The House will have 12 representatives from the Charlotte region, and 11 from Raleigh. Lawmakers look to 2010 census data when drawing political maps, but the reality is that portions of these cities look distinctly different, at least politically, than they did six years ago. The strategy that goes into dividing these areas is a key factor as Republican try to retain veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

What, if anything, will change?

In early 2016, state lawmakers were ordered by the courts to draw new maps for North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats. Those districts were also determined by the courts to be illegal racial gerrymanders. So legislators convened a special session in February of 2016 and drew more compact districts. The net result was a partisan change of zero. Prior to that court decision, there were 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats representing the state in the U.S. House; today after that redistricting, those numbers remain the same. At the state level, Republicans have maintained supermajorities since 2012. Democrats need to gain three seats to end that run.

When will the new maps be approved?

That is expected to happen later this month, sometime during the week of August 21st.

And once these maps are approved, is that it?

Plaintiffs who originally sued will have an opportunity to object to new maps next month.


Copyright 2017 North Carolina Public Radio

Jeff Tiberii first started posing questions to strangers after dinner at La Cantina Italiana, in Massachusetts, when he was two-years-old. Jeff grew up in Wayland, Ma., an avid fan of the Boston Celtics, and took summer vacations to Acadia National Park (ME) with his family. He graduated from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, and moved to North Carolina in 2006. His experience with NPR member stations WAER (Syracuse), WFDD (Winston-Salem) and now WUNC, dates back 15 years.
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