In 2019, the state’s district maps were ruled unconstitutional and had to be redrawn.
Recently, a North Carolina state senator made it clear that he supports gerrymandering, or the practice of drawing congressional districts to favor one political party over the other.
During a November debate in the N.C. Senate on the state’s newly drawn district maps—which would likely maintain the GOP’s majority rule in the legislature—Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-26) admonished Democrats for pushing back against the new maps, which were ordered by a panel of Superior Court judges in October.
“[The Constitution] says that in redistricting matters it is the province of the states and then it becomes the province of the prevailing party. It doesn’t say one thing about splitting a country or a precinct,” Tillman said. “It doesn’t say anything about being fair. If it’s set up to be the prevailing party’s do you think it should be anything other than partisan? It’s set up to be partisan!”
North Carolina has historically been home to some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, gerrymandering leads to skewed and less competitive elections, often disproportionately affects communities of color, and ignores the will of voters.
But, thanks to legal challenges, the 2020 elections could prove more competitive than in years past for North Carolina.
Here are five things you should know about redistricting in North Carolina:
1. It has taken multiple lawsuits to convince state legislators to redraw heavily gerrymandered districts.
Over the last year, judges in North Carolina heard two separate cases arguing that the way district maps were previously drawn gave Republicans an advantage. Because of how the maps spread out the electorate, only three of the 13 districts leaned Democratic.
Common Cause, a watchdog group based in Washington D.C., and the North Carolina Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in 2018 alleging that the Republican party created the state’s district maps “to entrench itself in power through redistricting.” On Sept. 3, a panel of North Carolina judges struck down the previous congressional maps and ordered new ones be drawn by the end of the month.
A similar lawsuit, Harper v. Lewis, was brought by a group of 14 voters. They argued that North Carolina’s district maps violate the Free Elections Clause, Equal Protections Clause, and the Freedom of Speech and Assembly clause in the state’s constitution. On Dec. 2, the state court ruled in favor of using the redrawn district maps in the upcoming 2020 election.
“There’s no question under any objective standards that North Carolina has [had] really gerrymandered maps, and so election results were deeply anti-Democratic,” said Michael Li, who works as senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy program.
The newly drawn maps are only good for the 2020 election. Since redistricting happens every 10 years, another round of redistricting is scheduled for after next year’s Census. That means there is still a chance lawmakers will find ways to redraw district maps in their favor once again.
2. New district maps could give Democrats more seats.
The new district maps are based on 2016 election results, which show five districts tilting toward Democrats and eight to Republicans. This is an improvement over previous district lines, where only three districts leaned Democrat.
These redrawn district lines acknowledge a section of blue voters in Raleigh and groups together Democratic voters around Greensboro. There are also three districts that are expected to be very competitive in coming elections, due to a tight split between red and blue voters.
In the 2020 election, Li said, Democrats now have a better shot at gaining more seats than they did in 2018. “These new maps are not completely perfect but much better, [they] will produce more responsive results, and can produce a delegation that will look more like the state as a whole.”
3. Two Republican incumbents have already announced they will not run in 2020. Another faces tougher odds.
Rep. George Holding (R-NC) who has represented North Carolina’s second district in Congress since 2017 and previously represented the 13th district, announced on Dec. 4 that he will not run for re-election next year. His district now leans more heavily blue.
“I am immensely grateful to have had the chance to represent my home state and work on behalf of the conservative ideals and values that I, like many Americans, believe in. Thank you to the people of North Carolina for giving me the opportunity to serve,” he wrote in a tweet.
Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina’s 11th District will also not seek reelection in 2020.
“There’s no question under any objective standards that North Carolina has [had] really gerrymandered maps, and so election results were deeply anti-Democratic.”
But Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), another Republican whose district was redrawn, intends to run for re-election. The new boundaries will make the 6th District, which he has represented since 2015, slightly harder to keep as a Republican seat. He promised in a tweet in November to keep serving the people in his district.
“I love the people of NC and I will keep fighting for them- no matter what liberal attorneys, judicial activists and politicians in Raleigh do in self-interest. My promise of people over politics is undeterred. We’ll continue to serve our constituents wherever the trail leads,” he wrote.
4. North Carolina has been at the center of voting rights disputes since 2010.
Redistricting happens every 10 years, coinciding with the Census count. In 2010, Republicans won control over both chambers in the state legislature and drew the district maps in a way that favored their party. Because the governor has no veto power over the maps, the GOP has managed to maintain control of the legislature since then—even though North Carolina has a more-or-less even split between Republicans and Democratic voters.
Experts agree that partisan gerrymandering is an unfair and undemocratic way of skewing elections, and directly impacts voting rights. When lawmakers draw their districts to favor one political party over another, they take away the right of the people to elect their representatives, according to the Brennan Center.
Prior to the new maps, Li said, “Democrats only had a quarter of the seats [in the legislature] despite routinely getting close to half the vote. That is exactly contrary to what the framers would have wanted. They thought it was really important that legislatures reflect the people as a whole, and that doesn’t happen when you put your thumb on the scale.”
5. Despite the progress in North Carolina, there’s still more work to do to ensure voters can pick their own representatives.
According to the Brennan Center, several states have already passed bipartisan reforms to make future redistricting more fair and transparent. New Hampshire and Virginia, for example, passed legislation in 2019 that would create advisory commissions to help redraw congressional maps; New Hampshire’s initiative goes even further by putting protections in place for people of color, and implementing a strict ban on gerrymandering.
That’s something Common Cause North Carolina executive director Bob Philips hopes to see in the future. “We’ve seen time and again that partisan politicians simply cannot be relied upon to draw nonpartisan voting districts,” he said in a statement. “Instead, our state should take redistricting power out of the hands of the legislature and entrust it with an impartial citizens commission that will draw our state’s voting maps free from partisan politics, with full transparency and robust public input.”