- A recent News & Observer editorial claims that “the numbers are irrelevant” when judging redistricting, but the heart of recent lawsuits over redistricting was an attempt the change the number of people elected from each party
- By several measures, the most likely outcome of unbiased redistricting is a likely 8-5 split of North Carolina’s congressional delegation in favor of Republicans
- The claim the there can be a purely “nonpartisan” redistricting committee has been exposed as a mirage
A recent News & Observer editorial on redistricting claimed that “the numbers (of districts likely to be won by either Republicans or Democrats) are irrelevant if the redistricting process remains — as it has — purely partisan.” That statement is curious for a couple of reasons.
First, the purpose of the two lawsuits that resulted in new legislative maps in North Carolina, Common Cause v. Lewis and Harper v. Lewis, was to change districts to increase the number of Democrats elected to the General Assembly and Congress. The numbers were highly relevant.
Also, the strongest evidence presented by plaintiffs in both cases was not on partisanship in the process; the legislature used the same constitutionally-mandated redistricting procedures for the most recent maps that have been used for a century-and-a-half. The supposedly strongest evidence was analyses suggesting that the district maps drawn by the General Assembly were statistical outliers compared to the thousands of random maps that researchers drew using computer models.
What is the most likely outcome of unbiased redistricting? A team of mathematicians led by Duke University Professor Jonathan Mattingly, one of the redistricting experts hired by the Democratic plaintiffs, found that about 55 percent of their random maps produced an 8-5 likely split in favor of Republicans, based on the most recent presidential election. That is the same likely result of Congressional districts recently approved by the General Assembly. The second most likely result was a 9-4 split in favor of Republicans.
A 2016 project by Common Cause and the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy, in which a bipartisan team of former judges was asked to draw Congressional districts, produced similar results. Mattingly’s team found that 8-5 and 9-4 partisan splits were the most common results of the map those judges produced, based on statistical analysis of several elections.
The bottom line is that an 8-5 likely partisan split is consistent with North Carolina’s political geography, which accounts for how people vote and where they live. Democrats increasingly tend to concentrate in urban enclaves while Republicans are slightly more evenly distributed across the state. Any redistricting process using neutral criteria like compactness and keeping cities and other communities of interest together will reflect that political geography.
The N&O editorial board’s criticism of “purely partisan” redistricting and its call for “truly nonpartisan” redistricting is also curious and misplaced. Creating political systems, including legislative districts, is an inherently political process and calls to “truly” remove partisanship from the redistricting process are naive or deceptive. Doing so would require creating a redistricting body whose members are both knowledgeable and interested in the political process while simultaneously disinterested in the results of that process.
The mirage of purely “nonpartisan” redistricting committees was dispelled after California’s attempt at nonpartisan redistricting in 2011. The ostensibly independent redistricting commission was subjected to manipulation both by the consultants they hired to help them and by partisan groups pretending to be unbiased citizens during testimony at public hearings. The result is that California went from a partisan gerrymander with 32 of 53 congressional seats being rated as safe to an “independent” gerrymander with 32 of 53 congressional districts being rated as safe. In what matters the most, numbers, California’s independent redistricting commission failed.
The NC House Redistricting Committee held a discussion on several redistricting commission bills towards the end of this year’s legislative session. That increases the chance that the General Assembly will take up one or more of those bills in next year’s short session. If North Carolina is to adopt some form of redistricting commission in the future, we should first learn from California’s mistakes.
What you can do: If you are represented by someone on the NC House Redistricting Committee or the NC Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, contact them to let them know that they should not be under the illusion that redistricting reform can be “nonpartisan.”