Under the principle of “one person, one vote,” states are required each decade to redraw congressional districts, along with state legislative and local electoral maps. The redrawing process comes after census numbers are released each decade, but with delays in the census, states are scrambling to get the maps done in a much shorter time frame than usual.
In North Carolina, the maps are drawn by the General Assembly. It’s a partisan process, and both Republicans and Democrats have a long history of gerrymandering when they’ve been in charge of the legislature.
Redistricting led to a decade-long legal battle over the maps, with courts tossing out the maps and sending legislators back to the drawing board several times. The last U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in 2019, however, found that gerrymandering based on politics was “a non-judiciable issue” and not a matter for the courts.
There’s long been a push for redistricting reform in North Carolina, taking the responsibility for drawing the maps out of the hands of elected officials and creating some sort of independent or bipartisan commission. But those efforts so far have failed.
One of the biggest things to watch this year will be where North Carolina’s new 14th Congressional District will go. Thanks to the state’s population growth over the last decade, North Carolina is getting another seat in Congress. It will be up to legislators in Raleigh to figure out just where that new district will be.
It’s a complicated process, but one that has profound effects on who gets elected. As the Republican-led General Assembly gets ready to draw the new maps in October, here are some common questions on just what redistricting means and how it works:
What does redistricting mean?
Redistricting, simply, is redrawing the voting maps for each elected position. States are required by the constitution to redraw districts with equal populations for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In North Carolina, the General Assembly is in charge of drawing the maps for congress and state legislative districts. County commissions and city councils in the state are largely in charge of drawing their own maps for members elected by district.
While congressional districts have to have equal populations, state legislative districts have a little wiggle room.
Redistricting, especially in North Carolina, has led to long partisan fights in the legislature and the courts over gerrymandering.
Redrawing the maps, especially if it’s a political process, can dictate who represents an area and which party controls the state for a decade.
What is gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is a word that gets tossed around a lot once a decade as the political maps are being redrawn. It’s the act of drawing electoral maps to favor one party or race over another. It essentially allows the map makers to pick the voters for an electoral district, which means they can pick who gets elected to that seat.
Jonathan Mattingly, a mathematics and statistics professor at Duke University, built computer models to show how districts are gerrymandered. His work was used in evidence in court cases during the last decade over gerrymandering in North Carolina.
In North Carolina, map makers can draw districts one way and have nine Republican winners and four Democratic winners, he said. Draw the maps another way and you could come up with the exact opposite result.
“That’s saying that the will of the people is being drowned out by the will of the people who are drawing the maps,” Mattingly said.
“We talk a lot about stuffing ballot boxes or fraudulent voting or voter suppression, but no one has ever accounted for those swings you see just by who draws the maps,” he said.
Not all gerrymandering is against the law., but racial gerrymandering is illegal, said Kelly Tornow, a lawyer with the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
“Political gerrymandering is OK, at least some degree of political gerrymandering,” she said, speaking during a webinar for local officials in August.
“Sometimes it can be hard to determine whether there’s a racial gerrymander or a political gerrymander,” Tornow said. “This can occur when someone’s race is closely associated with someone’s party affiliation.”
How are they making the new maps?
A joint House and Senate committee in the North Carolina General Assembly is leading the process of drawing the new maps. They started with a series of public hearings around the state that end Sept. 30.
The next step will be to actually draw up the new maps. In decades past, legislators and consultants have drawn the maps behind closed doors. But in 2019, a court ordered the legislature to redraw the maps in public. The General Assembly created the latest maps in an open committee room that had a live video feed so the public could keep tabs on the process.
“What we’re seeing now is at least a beginning sense of transparency based on the 2019 court case,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College who just released a new book on redistricting in North Carolina.
“If they choose to be open, start the process after the hearings and actually see the maps being built, there will still be cries of partisanship, but the cries may not be as justified as what we’ve seen in the past,” Bitzer said.
Most advocates say they think the legislature will follow a more open process this year, with the maps being drawn in a public committee room.
Once they make the new maps, the legislature plans to hold one public hearing in Raleigh on the boundaries before they go for votes in the state House and Senate.
The new maps will have to pass through both chambers of the General Assembly before they become official. The governor has no veto power over the redistricting maps.
When are they making the new maps?
It’s not clear when legislators will begin actually drawing the maps in public. But they are on a tight deadline.
The filing deadline for the 2022 elections, which include congress and many state legislature seats, is Dec. 6. The State Board of Elections says it wants the new maps finalized and approved by the legislature at least a month before the filing deadline.
So, that basically leaves the month of October for lawmakers to create the maps, hold a public hearing and get them passed through the North Carolina House and Senate.
We should learn more about the exact timeline in the coming days.
How can the public give input?
A series of public hearings around the state wraps up Thursday night, but the General Assembly’s Joint Redistricting Committee is still taking public comment online. People can also contact their legislators and committee members directly to make comments.
So far, the General Assembly is only planning to hold one public hearing in Raleigh after the maps are drawn. That date is still to be determined.