“Gerrymandering at its worst”: Public commenters pan proposed electoral maps

By: - October 28, 2021 12:00 pm

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, proposed this congressional district map. It lumps part the western third of Guilford County with a sliver of Watauga County, more than 100 miles away. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave this map an “F” for its partisanship. (Map: NC General Assembly)

Voters ask redistricting mapmakers to respect community ties 

One of the proposed maps for new congressional districts lumps parts of Wake County with North Topsail Beach, 135 miles away, in Onslow County.

That same map creates a district by taking slivers of Triad counties in the Piedmont – the western third of Guilford and the southern quarter of Forsyth – and extends it west, with a little, crooked finger entering Watauga County in the mountains. The map carves Wake into three pieces and Mecklenburg into four. It puts Nash and Edgecombe counties into separate districts even though the city of Rocky Mount straddles the county lines.

Sen. Ralph Hise

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, submitted the map, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. Hise is also a Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee co-chairman. The Princeton site gave the map an “F” grade for partisan fairness, determining that it creates 11 Republican and three Democratic districts.

Several congressional maps that Republicans proposed carve the biggest urban counties into three or more pieces. Republicans said they were drawing the new districts without consulting data on race or party affiliation.

However, public comments over more than five hours of hearings on Monday and Tuesday were overwhelmingly critical. Voters said it was obvious that map-drawers didn’t listen when people said they wanted legislators to respect communities of interest and to keep neighboring cities and towns in the same district.

Karen Hiser, a Wake County resident, slammed the Hise map, calling it “ludicrous.” Holly Springs doesn’t have much in common with coastal Onslow, she said.

“It splits Morrisville from Cary, which makes no sense,” she said. “It splits Apex down the middle. All three Republican maps are the antithesis of protection for our Wake County communities.”

Charles York of High Point said that the maps that show a carved-up Guilford County, with precincts drawn into a district with a Watauga County precinct, would be bad for the Triad.

The maps were drawn this way to “crack” Democratic voters and protect Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, he said.

Rep. Virginia Foxx

“In all these maps, Virginia Foxx’s little sliver of Watauga County, just her one voting precinct, has been added to a district spanning from Ashe County all the way to Guilford,” he said.

York said he wanted a congressperson who lives in the Triad. “I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican. Just someone who lives in the same elevation as me, uses the same airport, understands the furniture market. There’s no reason to chop up the Triad.”

State lawmakers must redraw congressional and legislative districts after each census. North Carolina’s population grew enough in the last decade to get an additional U.S. House seat, bringing the total to 14.

Legislative seats are fixed at 120 in the state House and 50 in the state Senate. District lines are redrawn to balance populations.

Some speakers criticized what they said was a lack of transparency, such as last-minute public hearings, and proposed maps that were hard to find online.

House Speaker Tim Moore

Many public commenters were also suspicious that the congressional maps create an open seat centered on Cleveland County, home of House Speaker Tim Moore, while urban counties most responsible for the state’s growth are fractured; sections of those counties are attached to areas that are much more rural.

Most of the state’s population growth in the last decade was in six Triangle counties and in six Charlotte-area counties, The News & Observer reported when census data was released.

Cleveland County grew slightly, and Gaston County, which was made a part of the new district, grew by 11%. But four other counties in the new proposed district shrank over the last 10 years.

Moore has not announced plans to run for Congress. However, former state Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse reported in the Carolina Journal in April that Moore is rumored to be interested in running

Senate Democrats at a Monday news conference criticized Republicans for refusing to study racially polarized voting. Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue of Wake County said that there would most certainly be lawsuits if any of the redistricting plans Republicans have presented so far are approved.

Republicans hold the majority in the state House and Senate, and the governor does not have the power to veto redistricting plans.

North Carolina has a long history of courts throwing out its congressional and legislative maps. Speakers at the public hearings said they were tired of having North Carolina be the gerrymandering poster child.

Looking at the proposed maps, public commenters said it is obvious that Republicans want to dilute Democrats’ voting power and target Black office holders. A number of speakers identified themselves as local Democratic Party officers.

The proposed congressional maps will significantly disadvantage minority voters, said Phyllis Demco, a NC League of Women Voters board member.

The NC League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit in 2016 opposing the congressional map as a partisan gerrymander.

Legislators know the racial demographics of districts, even if they aren’t looking at statistics, Demco said.

“You are aware of where your voters of color reside and you are aware of how they vote, and that makes it easy without statistics to pack and crack us,” she said.

“Packing” and “cracking” are redistricting techniques used to dilute the effectiveness of a voting bloc.

“We think you are being disingenuous by saying you do not consider race. To serve your goal of staying in power, you do not need to analyze racially polarized voting, you just need to make it appear that you haven’t,” Demco said.

This map, submitted by Wake County Democrat Jay Chaudhuri, received an “A” from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, based on its geographic compactness, alignment with community interests and lack of partisanship. (Map: NCGA)

Many speakers said the congressional maps are out of whack in a 50-50 state, referring to voting statistics by political party.

In elections, voters split about evenly between Democratic and Republican candidates. For example, Donald Trump bested President Joe Biden in the 2020 election with 49.9% of the vote to Biden’s 48.6%.

Voter registration in the state is divided roughly into thirds between Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters.

One of the handful of speakers supporting the maps said the 50-50 election results are the wrong way to look at map drawing. Democratic voters are concentrated in about 20 counties, said Harold Eustache, vice chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party. That leaves wide swaths of the state with Republican majorities. Republican map-makers “did as good a job as possible under the circumstances,” he said.

However, Senate Democrats were able to draw maps with six or seven Democratic seats by limiting the division of the state’s largest counties. It’s easy to tell whether a Democrat or Republican submitted a particular map by the way the biggest counties are treated.

While the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave ‘F’ grades for partisan fairness to the proposed congressional maps submitted by Hise and or Republican Sen. Warren Daniel of Morganton, it awarded ‘A’ grades to proposed maps submitted by Democratic Sens. Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County and Ben Clark of Hoke County.

When it comes to size, legislators have more leeway in drawing state House and Senate districts. Congressional districts must have nearly equal or nearly numbers of people, while legislative districts can be 5% bigger or smaller than the ideal.

House Minority Leader Robert Reives

The legislative maps were likewise flawed, many speakers at the public hearing said. Several homed in on a state House seat in Chatham County held by House Democratic leader Robert Reives.

The House district was redrawn to replace precincts from southern Durham County with precincts from Republican Randolph County, combining them with all of Chatham.

Critics said that one of the Randolph precincts should be dropped from that proposed district because it is farthest away and more rural. It also makes the district less Democratic.

An analysis of proposed legislative districts by the progressive nonprofit group Carolina Forward said the proposed House map targeted Reives by adding thousands of Republican Randolph voters, changing a safe Democratic seat to a competitive one.

In doing so, it made the district nearly as big as it could get, while House districts around it are undersized, the analysis said.

Republican legislators did not say how public comment would be considered, which maps would be put forward for votes, or when the legislature would debate and vote on the redistricting plans.

Susan B. McClanahan of Orange County said the Randolph precincts have nothing in common with the fast-growing suburban area around Pittsboro.

“This is gerrymandering at its worst,” she said.

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Lynn Bonner
Lynn Bonner

Investigative Reporter Lynn Bonner covers the state legislature and politics, as well as elections, the state budget, public and mental health, safety net programs and issues of racial equality.