Maps not surprising, but still disappointing
Published October 26, 2023
By Tom Campbell
The new redistricted congressional and legislative maps passed by our legislature are not surprising to those who have followed this hyper partisan General Assembly. But they are disappointing. Lawmakers are more interested in keeping their jobs and party control than in doing their jobs.
Why were they even redrawing maps? Let’s attempt to make a lengthy explanation brief. After every decennial census our constitution requires congressional and legislative district maps be redrawn to reflect new population data and each district is to have roughly the same number of people.
Our General Assembly has virtually unlimited power drawing those districts. Traditionally, the political party in power has gerrymandered districts to safeguard party dominance and protect incumbent legislators. There are two primary checks to this unlimited power.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), based on the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, outlawed discriminatory practices such as literary tests, to prevent Blacks and minorities from voting. North Carolina was subject to “preclearance” of districts before implementing them, but a 2013 US Supreme Court decision essentially negated preclearance requirements. The VRA is no longer the “check and balance” it once was.
Courts have been the other check in avoiding racial or partisan discrimination. Our State Supreme Court has often determined that congressional and legislative districts were unconstitutional. Following the 2020 census the legislature was required to draw new districts. The NC Supreme Court declared the 2021 maps lawmakers drew as unconstitutional on the grounds of extreme partisan gerrymandering. Lawmakers submitted new maps. Our high court again said the congressional maps were unconstitutional and, in frustration, hired “special masters” to draw new districts. They permitted the revised legislative maps to stand, but ruled that both congressional and legislative maps be redrawn prior to the 2024 elections.
The special masters’ congressional maps, which more accurately reflected voter registrations in the state, resulted in 7 Democrats and 7 Republicans elected to Congress. Legislative maps predictably produced Republican majorities in both the NC House and Senate, however Republicans were one vote shy of a veto-proof majority in the House. That changed in April of this year when Representative Tricia Cotham changed her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Since that date both houses have used veto-proof margins to consistently overturn Governor Cooper’s vetoes.
But a more important change occurred in the 2022 election. Our state Supreme Court flipped from having a 4 to 3 majority of Democrats to a plurality of 5 Republicans and 2 Democrats. Since court decisions are almost as partisan as legislative actions, the new maps just passed are unlikely to be overturned.
The new congressional maps jeopardize 3 or 4 current congressional Democrats. Analysts are predicting these maps will elect 10 Republicans and 4 Democrats to congress, possibly even an 11 to 3 margin. Duke math professor Jonathan Mattingly, head of a research team reviewing them said, “The maps the legislature have proposed essentially negate the need to have elections for the U.S. House of Representatives.” They are worse than the ones proposed in 2021.
Chris Cooper, political science professor, from Western Carolina University, said the legislative maps, “look fairly similar to maps that have been struck down in recent years by the courts.” The respected political observer added, “With the state supreme court we had two years ago, these maps may have crossed the line.” With the current partisan makeup of the high court that isn’t likely.
Ralph Hise, head of the Senate Redistricting committee, boldly proclaimed that race was not a factor in drawing maps, however he did acknowledge that political affiliations were strongly considered. The new maps, crafted behind closed doors was the least transparent process, with less public feedback, than ever experienced.
If you carefully study the newly drawn Republican maps you will find continued evidence of the stacking, packing and cracking of districts. Stacking is the process of combining communities of interest (especially minority voters) to create a perceived voting majority, while also including many high-income, better educated (usually white voters), knowing they traditionally turn out in higher numbers. Packing combines minorities or Democrats in one district, preventing them from affecting outcomes in other districts. Cracking spreads out these minority or Democratic voters into several districts, diluting their power to elect candidates.
I’m tired of hearing Republicans respond by claiming that Democrats did the same for many years. It’s true. But does that make it right? And when Democrats did it, they had both the Voting Rights Act and less partisan courts to hold them somewhat accountable. And they were infinitely more transparent.
If we want more representative districts we are going to have to respond to this legislative gerrymandering by “dummymandering” - producing just the opposite result from what lawmakers intended. And that will require work in explaining the problem, registering voters and making sure they get out to vote. In other words, it is up to each of us.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.