- After a slow start, NC legislators are progressing on drawing new district maps per a court order
- Just under half of Senate and House districts need to be redrawn
- Tensions may mount as the Sept. 18 deadline nears
The North Carolina General Assembly has begun the redistricting process mandated by a North Carolina Superior Court panel on September 3 in Common Cause v. Lewis. The court mandated that the process must be complete by September 18. After a rough start, it appears that the General Assembly is going to make that deadline. However, there are still some potential roadblocks ahead.
Slowly getting the process going
The court order required that the process be conducted completely in the open. That General Assembly leaders were doing their best to comply with that order showed in committee meetings during the first day of the redistricting process on September 9. In normal business, legislators will discuss the broad parameters of the process before the first committee meeting to make sure that the process goes smoothly and in compliance with legislative rules. That was not the case here. I sat in on the House Redistricting Committee for nearly two hours that Monday and it was clear that committee chair David Lewis was playing it by ear. The result is that it took them the whole time I was there just to approve the first two of eight proposed steps of the process for drawing districts.
We also got gems like this from the Senate on Tuesday on an exchange between Senators Natasha Marcus (D- Mecklenburg) and Warren Daniel (R- Avery, Burke, Caldwell):
Daniel’s water pitcher was eventually abandoned and both chambers of the General Assembly used a lottery machine to randomly pick the starting map.
In both the House and Senate redistricting committees, legislators decided to start the process by using maps developed by University of Michigan political scientist Jowei Chen. Chen had used a computer to randomly develop thousands of maps that followed North Carolina’s redistricting rules. Those maps had been used in the Common Cause v. Lewis case to demonstrate that the districts drawn by the General Assembly in 2017 were statistical outliers. Legislative staff then narrowed those “Chen maps” down to a handful of maps based on several criteria such as compactness. It was from that narrowed list that the starting maps were chosen. Starting completely from scratch would have made it nearly impossible for the General Assembly to meet the September 18 deadline.
The court order stated that the legislature could not use partisan data to draw the districts. Of course, both parties have long used partisan information to form their ideal maps. They cannot unlearn that information and we will see this on full display as the amendment process continues. That is especially true of legislators, the best of whom know their districts intimately well.
As an aside, turning the process over to an outside commission for future redistricting would not resolve that issue; the commission would either be staffed with well-informed partisans or, as seen in the California redistricting commission, by individuals who would be vulnerable to manipulation by staffers and fake “citizen groups” that were fronts for partisan organizations.
Two things that have made the legislators’ job easier
Considering how laborious the current redistricting process is for legislators, there are a couple pieces of good news. The first is that they only have to redraw a little less than half of House and Senate districts. The other districts were not part of the court ruling and so are not affected.
Below are the randomly-selected starting maps for the affected House and Senate Districts. As can be seen from the maps, most of the state was not affected by the ruling (although most urban counties were).
The second piece of good news is that legislators will not have to reconfigure county groupings. County groupings are a legacy of Stephenson v. Bartlett, a (2002) case that struck down Democratic gerrymanders. The groupings also reconcile the federal one-person-one-vote requirement with the requirement in the North Carolina Constitution that county lines not be crossed when drawing state legislative districts. The two maps above indicate the House and Senate county groupings with blue borders.
While some Democratic legislators have expressed a desire to redraw the county groups, it would be nearly impossible to do so without affecting districts outside the court order in Common Cause v. Lewis. Also, an analysis led by Jonathan Mattingly, an expert witness for the plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis, found that the current county groups were “optimal” for satisfying constitutional requirements for redistricting.
In any case, the court order stipulated that “the county groupings utilized in the 2017 House and Senate maps shall be utilized in the remedial maps” (page 354).
What to look for next week
As the redistricting process continues, there are two things to observe. First, there is likely going to be tension within both parties between those who represent districts that are being redrawn (who will seek to amend the maps to maximize their advantage in their own districts) and members representing unaffected districts (who will want to make their party as strong as possible in as many districts as possible, possibly at the expense of weakening the advantage that their co-partisans have in their affected districts). So far the process has gone relatively smoothly, but may fall apart as we get closer to the September 18 deadline.
Secondly, look for a possible attempt by Democrats to sabotage the process, either by delaying it past the court-ordered September 18 deadline or uniting against any maps the legislature produces in a bid to get the court to step in and appoint its own person to redraw the districts. As I have previously noted, the court order for the General Assembly to ignore partisan data when making the remedial maps makes it more difficult to create maps that would favor Democrats. Seeing that, Democrats may decide to take their chances on court-drawn maps in a bid to replicate what happened in Pennsylvania, where a court-appointed special master drew districts favorable to Democrats. For that same reason, it is in Republican’s best interest to keep the process within the General Assembly by avoiding too much conflict.
If the General Assembly can avoid or clear those potential hurdles, we will have a set of new legislative maps for pundits to scour over in less than a week.