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Redistricting explained: A guide to how legislative maps are drawn in N.C.

North Carolina General Assembly building in Raleigh on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

Despite an over four-month delay in the release of 2020 census data, North Carolina legislators are now tasked with redrawing the state's political districts by mid-December.

The U.S. Census Bureau released population data from the 2020 census on Aug. 12. Because the state's population has increased by 9.5 percent over the past 10 years, North Carolina will now have the addition of a 14th congressional district.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the release of census data for over four months, but the Dec. 17 deadline for redistricting still hasn't been pushed back, despite other states having their deadlines in 2022. 

What is redistricting?

Redistricting is the process by which legislative districts, both at the state and federal level, are redrawn based on changes in a state’s population. Robert Joyce, professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, said that this is important for making sure that every person’s vote counts the same in every election. 

Joyce said the goal of redistricting is to ensure each person's vote would have the same impact on elections. 

“For districts to meet the constitutional requirement of equal protection of the law, they have to be about the same population so that everybody's vote counts about the same,” he said. 

Joyce said that if you have two electoral districts — one with a lot of people and one with fewer people — the votes from people in the more-populated district would be worth less than the votes of people in the less-populated district.

In North Carolina, there are two committees that handle redistricting — the House Committee on Redistricting, chaired by Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, and the Senate Committee on Redistricting and Elections, co-chaired by Sens. Warren Daniel, R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell; Ralph Hise, R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey; and Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, Union. 

The two committees are responsible for drawing congressional district lines. A joint resolution between the House and Senate committees is required to approve the redistricting. 

Redistricting is typically done every 10 years after the results of the decennial census are released. However, mid-decade redistricting is not uncommon in some states, such as North Carolina, where there tend to be issues related to gerrymandering. 

On the base level, redistricting is based on population. Each congressional district, for example, has to be one-fourteenth of the state’s population, plus or minus five percent. Districts also have to be contiguous, meaning every part of the district has to be territorially connected. 

There are many other considerations that can go into drawing districts, but these regulations can vary wildly from year to year.

“Except for the population numbers and the requirement of continuity, everything else is a little bit vague,” Joyce said.

In some states, issues like race are considered, but North Carolina law prohibits the use of racial data to determine the redrawing of political districts. 

Recent legal issues

In North Carolina, congressional districts have been redrawn twice since 2011 — first in 2017 due to racial gerrymandering and then again in 2019 because of partisan gerrymandering. 

The Supreme Court in 2017 ruled 5-3 that the N.C. General Assembly used race to unconstitutionally rig the district maps. 

In 2019, a Wake County Superior Court panel decided unanimously that the N.C. General Assembly used data on partisan affiliations to unconstitutionally draw districts that favored Republican legislators.

Some legislators have expressed frustration with legal snags to previous redistricting efforts and are hoping this year's effort will break the trend of previously flawed maps. 

“North Carolina has been the epicenter of redistricting lawsuits for decades,” Daniel said in a press release. “It’s time to put the last 30 years of litigation behind us and begin a new era of nonpartisan map drawing.” 

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Some of the other criteria that the General Assembly could consider include incumbent protection and keeping communities of interest together.

One of the main changes to the criteria for the 2021 census is a new rule prohibiting the use of partisan data in redrawing districts. This comes after a court ruled that the districts drawn in 2019 constituted a partisan gerrymander, a new issue in North Carolina. 

“It has always been recognized that the drawing of districts is a political matter,” Joyce said. “The party in charge of the body that is drawing the districts is going to draw them in a way that is better for them than for the other party, and that's just an inherent part of it."

Joyce expressed concern that, despite North Carolina courts having recently identified partisan gerrymandering as an issue, the judicial system as a whole still has work to do in rooting it out. 


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