NC lawmakers are drawing new political maps. The outcome could lead to same old results
As Bob Phillips recently surveyed the scene in a committee room at the North Carolina General Assembly, he described the action in the hushed voice of a commentator watching a pro golfer line up a potential winning put.
"So, they're working on a House map in Cumberland County at the moment and you can see how they are highlighting precincts and adding it into a potential district," Phillips whispered.
State lawmakers could wrap up work on drawing proposed voting district maps this week, with committee votes and public comment on new political boundaries to follow soon after that.
Phillips is executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to open government and transparency. Common Cause was the lead plaintiff in state court challenges that led to a 2019 redrawing of maps declared to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered with extreme partisan bias by North Carolina's Republican-led Legislature.
"You're looking at making sure that you're within the deviation, that you're not splitting too many precincts, that you're not trying to cross county lines if at all possible," Phillips said. He explained what a leading Republican representative and GOP staffers were trying to accomplish as they worked on a state House district map at one of four computer terminals available to legislators who want to draw new political boundaries.
The setup in the House committee room forces observers to sit at some distance from the computer terminals where lawmakers can work on maps. Therefore, watching a livestream on a laptop or phone is required to follow the action closely.
In the Senate committee room, however, you can get a lot closer to one of the four map-making computer terminals.
On this day, Senate Redistricting Committee co-Chairman Ralph Hise (R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey) consulted with legislative staffers on drawing a congressional map. A zero-deviation requirement means all 14 of the state's congressional districts must be equal in population.
On his way out of the committee room, Hise said balancing that requirement with the goal of minimizing the splitting of municipalities poses a challenge, especially when dealing with densely-populated counties like Wake and its warren of suburban towns surrounding Raleigh.
"They interweave themselves so trying to not divide them is a little more complicated," Hise said.
It is these small adjustments at the margins, on a precinct level, that can make a huge difference in the makeup of political maps, according to Carnegie Mellon University mathematician Wesley Pegden, who recently served as a panelist at Redistricting and American Democracy, a seminar put on by Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. Pegden served as an expert witness in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court redistricting case.
At the Duke redistricting conference, Pegden used the image of a beach and said that if most of the grains of a sand on the shore represented a district map comprised of seemingly compact, orderly districts, the final steps of moving a precinct from one district to another is like moving one grain of sand.
"And it's that very last step, where I think things usually go most off the rails," Pegden said during the panel discussion. "Because that grain of sand can be chosen to be the most extreme, the most outlying map."
In August, with a decade's worth of litigation over past maps to guide them, lawmakers adopted a list of criteria for drawing new maps based on 2020 census data.
"Most folks agree," said Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), House Redistricting Committee co-chair, discussing what he sees as the key criteria for the drawing of fair district maps. "Equal population, or, at least on the state Legislative maps, very close to equal population, keeping counties whole, keeping cities whole, and keeping towns whole."
"And when you use that kind of criteria," he added, "ultimately what you typically come up with is a map that someone can look at and say, 'That makes sense.'"
But state Sen. Ben Clark (D-Cumberland, Hoke) thinks the criteria adopted by the Republican-majority Legislature do not go far enough to guarantee fair maps. The Cumberland County Democrat and Senate redistricting committee member unsuccessfully proposed a prohibition on splitting counties more than once. Nonetheless, Clark has been working on his own version of a congressional map that he says would distribute seats more evenly across the state.
"I wanted to create a structure by which you would have seven rooted in the east and seven rooted in the west," Clark said.
And Clark wanted a map that provides representation for each of what he called the state's major geo-cultural regions.
"So you'll see we have one in the west," he said, pointing to a color print-out of his proposed map. "We have one in the Triad, in the Triangle there are a couple of them, there are about three in Metrolina, but we also have one in the Sandhills, one in the southeast, one in the coastal area, and one in the northeast."
The nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave Clark's proposed map an overall grade of A based on factors like competitiveness, geographical compactness, and the number of county splits. A map drawn by Republican Senator and Redistricting Committee co-Chair Warren Daniel got an F.
Lekha Shupeck has been tracking the redistricting process. Shupeck is the state's director of All On The Line, a nonprofit advocacy group opposed to gerrymandering and funded by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Just like the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Shupeck said the GOP-drawn maps she has seen would yield heavy Republican majorities for North Carolina's congressional delegation.
"You know, I think that if you're going to do all this and have all this transparency and say you're giving yourself all these rules but the outcome is exactly the same, where you have a map that entrenches a huge partisan bias, then I think a lot of it feels like theater," said Shupek.
For redistricting reform advocates like Common Cause's Bob Phillips, as long as lawmakers draw their own districts, maps will remain unfair, no matter who's in power.