Democrats’ expert challenges narrative about ‘fair’ election maps
Published January 6, 2022
By Mitch Kokai
You’ve heard the argument from Democratic politicians and their ideological allies:
North Carolina is a purple state, nearly evenly divided between supporters of the two major parties. The state’s new congressional map should reflect that fact.
The argument suggests that a fair map — free from partisan mischief — should be likely to elect as many Democrats as Republicans under normal electoral conditions. With the state adding a 14th seat to its U.S. House delegation this year, that means a 7-7 split.
Any deviation from a 7-7 outcome ought to raise red flags. If the map looks likely to produce a Republican advantage, that must mean GOP mapmakers have engaged in unconstitutional “extreme” partisan gerrymandering.
That’s the Democrats’ argument. But it seems they forgot to tell one of their top outside experts.
Jowei Chen is a political scientist at the University of Michigan. He has compiled reports and testified on behalf of N.C. Democrats and their allies. He spent hours on the witness stand in 2019 during a trial in Raleigh. He supported Democrats’ attack against Republican-drawn election maps.
Now Chen is helping the political left again. As critics challenge North Carolina’s new election maps, Chen has submitted 75 pages of charts, graphs, and written analysis. All are tied to 1,000 computer simulations he produced using standard redistricting criteria. Chen argues that Republican mapmakers veered far from the maps most likely to result from a fair, unbiased election redistricting process.
But there’s at least one element of Chen’s work that could prove troubling to Democrats’ narrative.
While Republicans took no account of prior election results when drawing and debating North Carolina’s new congressional map, Chen judged his simulations against several recent N.C. elections.
Perhaps the most relevant was the 2020 presidential race. North Carolinians cast 5,524,804 ballots in that contest. Some 99.6% of people who voted at all in that election voted for president. In comparison, 5,502,778 people (99.2% of overall voters) cast ballots for governor, while 5.47 million voters (98.7%) voted in a hotly contested U.S. Senate race.
While Republican Donald Trump won the state’s presidential electoral votes for a second time in 2020, the result was close. Trump secured 49.9% of the overall vote, while Democrat Joe Biden won 48.6%. Few would dispute that the result offers evidence of a closely divided state.
One of Chen’s charts, on the next-to-last page of his court submission, shows the impact for North Carolina’s U.S. House delegation if voters’ congressional choices mirrored their presidential picks.
In more than 73% of Chen’s simulations, the new map would be likely to produce a 9-5 Republican majority. In another 9% of the simulations, the GOP advantage would grow to 10-4. Some 16% of the simulations would give Republicans an 8-6 edge.
Here’s the kicker: Just 1.3% of the simulations produce a 7-7 map. Plus Chen shows no evidence that any simulation would produce a map favoring Democrats.
To put these findings another way, there’s a nearly three out of four chance that a map based on fair, universally accepted redistricting criteria would give Republicans a good shot at a 9-5 advantage in the congressional delegation. There’s nearly one chance in 10 that the map would produce a 10-4 split.
There’s barely one chance in 100 that a map would be likely to give Democrats as many seats as Republicans in the congressional delegation.
Neither Chen, nor the Democrats who tout his work, are likely to draw attention to that finding.
But the result has attracted attention from state Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, one of the architects of North Carolina’s latest election maps.
“The Democratic Party has been complaining about ‘gerrymandered’ congressional maps for months,” Hise said in a Dec. 16 news release. “But their own redistricting expert quietly told a court that fair maps have a high likelihood of electing nine or 10 Republicans.”
“Bottom Line: Democrats claim in their redistricting lawsuit that North Carolina’s congressional maps are an ‘extreme partisan gerrymander,’ even as their own filings to the court admit that fair maps have an 83% likelihood of electing nine or 10 Republicans,” according to Hise’s release.
It’s true that Hise focused on just one chart within Chen’s lengthy submission. Another chart, using Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2020 re-election results, shows a much higher likelihood of a 7-7 congressional map.
But even when Chen focuses on the 2020 state attorney general’s race, in which incumbent Democrat Josh Stein won re-election against a Republican running statewide for the first time, 88% of simulated maps produce a Republican majority, with 44% giving the GOP at least a 9-5 edge. Just 12% of those maps produce a likely 7-7 split.
As courts address the future of N.C. election maps, judges must consider the low likelihood of a 7-7 split, even under the best electoral circumstances for Democrats.
Failing to consider Republican-friendly evidence from Democrats’ hand-picked expert would result in clear injustice.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.