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After Last Week's Wins, GOP Legislators Will Once Again Draw New Legislative Maps

Mecklenburg County has five state Senate seats and are all held by Democrats. Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said that arguably disenfranchises the county's Republican voters.
Mecklenburg County has five state Senate seats and are all held by Democrats. Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said that arguably disenfranchises the county's Republican voters.

Ten years ago, after the 2010 census, Republicans in the General Assembly drew new state legislature and congressional maps to cement their power.

That touched off years of litigation from Democrats, which ended last year when a three-judge panel said the GOP maps were unconstitutional gerrymanders.

Republicans were forced to make changes.

They began by using a map from a Democratic expert, and the GOP agreed to livestream the process where lawmakers shifted lines and moved districts.

Most observers thought it was generally fair.

“My hope is that the process at a minimum can have that openness that we saw last year,” said Bob Phillips with the group Common Cause, whose lawsuit forced the General Assembly to draw new maps in 2019. “It was far from perfect but there was some transparency that we normally don’t see.”

But with another redraw coming next year based on the 2020 census, is that going to happen again?

Democratic State Sen. Natasha Marcus of Mecklenburg County is skeptical.

She said last year’s mapmaking was fair and transparent “but that was because we were under very strict court order. And the court was watching us with the threat of them drawing the maps if we didn’t do it right.”

She’s worried the 2021 maps will be drawn like they were in 2011.

“What I do think is that Republicans who run the General Assembly are smart and they are certainly going to make things look transparent,” she said.

Phil Berger, the Republican Senate leader, said he’s not in favor of an independent commission to draw maps, as many Democrats and the group Common Cause want.

But he thinks next year’s mapmaking can look like last year's, with both parties involved. He wouldn’t offer details.

“I think it will be similar to 2019,” he said. “The challenge we are going to have is what’s our starting point? Remember in 2019, our starting point was basically the maps that a Democratic expert had drawn. And I don’t think it will be possible for us to start from the current maps, simply because at this point we don’t know what the population shifts are.”

Berger and other Republicans have argued that last week’s election should end the decade of litigation over maps.

They note that they won in 2010 on maps drawn by a Democratic General Assembly, and that they won in 2020 with maps that Democrats say were mostly fair.

“And I could make a fairly significant argument that Democrats' problem is not the maps,” he said. “Their problem is the message they are trying to sell to voters, and the voters just aren’t buying it.”

So let’s take a step back.

If you total up all the votes in the state Senate races from last week’s election, Republicans received 51% of the vote. Democrats won 49%.

The GOP controls 28 state Senate seats, to the Democrats' 22. The GOP has 56% of state Senate seats.

While that imbalance is greater than the popular vote, that doesn’t necessarily mean this year’s maps were unfair. The state constitution requires that counties be kept whole, and that leads to some Democratic House and Senate members racking up huge victories in cities, where Democratic voters are concentrated.

Phillips of Common Cause said he believes the new maps in 2021 will generally help Democrats, if only because the population growth has been in urban areas. That means Democratic-strongholds like Mecklenburg and Wake counties will get more House and Senate seats. He believes that will make it harder for the GOP to increase the majority.

“There’s going to be some challenges to creating a highly partisan map,” he said.

He said rural counties – which usually vote Republican – may go from being represented by two legislators to one.

“And it might mean that a current district that’s two counties might have to become three,” he said.

That’s the conventional wisdom.

But Berger – who has been accused of weakening the strength of Democratic voters through gerrymanders – floated a new idea. He said adding seats to urban counties would give Republican voters there a voice.

“We need to look at whether folks in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, who happen to be Republicans, are being disenfranchised,” he said.

He notes that Republican, or conservative candidates, received a little more than 30% of the vote in Mecklenburg Senate races but have none of the five seats. The GOP has one of the 121 Mecklenburg House seats.

Copyright 2021 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

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