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What North Carolina’s redistricting cases suggest for 2021 strategy

December 8th, 2019, 10:57pm by Sam Wang


Like many of you, I followed the North Carolina redistricting court cases of the last two months with great attention. I would characterize them as partial successes – but with important lessons for the future.

Plaintiffs and their allies have painted the Congressional map approved by the court as a defeat. I think that’s wrong by at least half. Look at the range of possibilities. Since 2008, the state wide vote in North Carolina has been reasonably closely divided but elected a Congressional delegation anywhere from 8 Democrats, 5 Republicans to most recent gerrymander, 10 Republicans, 3 Democrats. The midpoint in this range would be seven or eight Republicans – and the map approved by the court is likely to elect 8 Republicans. If we see an equitable outcome as seven Republicans, then 2/3 of the gerrymandered advantage is gone. That’s mostly a win in my book.

However, the congressional redistricting process took place largely behind closed doors, with little citizen input. The Court noted the imperfections of the process, but allowed the map to be used in order to prevent delays in the congressional primaries scheduled for March 3rd next year. They qualified their decision by saying the state legislative and congressional maps will be replaced following the 2020 census.

What will stop the “not enough time to redraw” argument from reappearing in 2021? In the Raleigh’s News & Observer last week we argued that the solution is a combination of citizens on the ground, and data on communities of interest. The laws of over twenty states urge redistricting to honor “communities of interest” when drawing lines. Communities of interest are defined as groups of people who share similar interests, and who may be affected in special ways by legislation. These interests can be racial, ethnic, religious, social, cultural, or economic, and North Carolina law explicitly requires state legislative district take these communities into account.

For example, the remedial Congressional map’s Districts 8 and 9 split the Sandhills, a region in southern central North Carolina. This split, which joins part of the Sandhills with part of Charlotte 150 miles to the west, appears to be designed to dilute Democrats’ voting power to make a safely Republican Xth District.

Citizens can and should tell legislators about these communities. A new set of online, digital tools can facilitate this process. Here at Princeton, our students are developing Representable.org, an easy way for citizens to draw and upload their communities. The Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group is also developing such a tool. Once a state has a database of many communities, honoring those communities can dilute the partisanship that dominated last month’s process – and leave legislators with no excuse for ignoring their constituents.

The Congressional map is important for representation in Washington DC. But even more important for North Carolina’ future is legislative redistricting. When state legislators draw themselves safe districts and near-certain victories, they then have line-drawing power over the following decade. Such a process creates a positive feedback loop of self-sustaining power. By breaking this cycle, fair districting makes government answerable to voters.

For 2021, perhaps most important of all will be the need for citizens to mount as rapid a response as possible. Redistricting and lawsuits are a maddening combination of fast and slow: too fast for citizens to weigh in, yet takes so long to play out that there’s not enough time to put in a fair map for the next election. Our hope is that the tools we are developing at Princeton will be used by local networks of reform organizations, citizens, and journalists to tell stories and give rapid feedback to legislators. Technology can help citizens bring about fair districting, not just in North Carolina but in every state.

Tags: Redistricting

3 Comments so far ↓

  • Casti de cCopiat

    I absolutely agree with your major point. I understand why others add economic data, etc. But sticking to the polls is the most defensible approach.

    So, when does your prediction uncertainty start tightening up on the basis of not enough time left for a large fluctuation?

  • Tracy Lightcap

    I went to the Representable site and couldn’t figure out how to make it work! Tell the team over there to put up a manual so the rest of us can figure what to do once we get there.

    • Sam Wang

      Thank you for the input. We know, this is exactly the kind of thing that is needed. I appreciate it!

      Take a look now, we have a rough manual posted as a PDF. Your input is welcome.

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