Republicans want to protect their supermajority in the General Assembly. No surprise there.

What does have political analysts talking is how openly GOP leaders have stated that as a goal as they draw new, court-ordered legislative maps.

Earlier this year, a federal three-judge panel ordered lawmakers to scrap 28 districts that were racially gerrymandered. The panel gave the General Assembly until the end of August to submit new maps for the 2018 general election.

Analysts said protecting incumbents and consciously omitting race-based considerations were the two most controversial criteria lawmakers discussed Aug. 10 when a joint House-Senate redistricting committee set out the process for drawing new legislative maps. The discussion of those criteria also highlighted debates over race, partisan affiliation, and how the federal Voting Rights Act continues to loom over the makeup of the General Assembly.

“It’s often implicit in drawing new districts,” David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College, said of incumbent protection. “That’s the first time in North Carolina I can recall hearing that explicitly stated.”  

Chris Cooper, head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, agreed.

“I think there is a higher purpose to it,” Cooper said of the incumbent protection plan. It ensures people who have been popularly elected and are doing a good job have an opportunity to continue to do so. But there’s also a purely partisan purpose to drawing districts that avoid pitting Republicans against one another.

Incumbency protection drew the ire of House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake.

“I think it’s unfair that a majority obtained by unconstitutional districts is now going to be protected,” Jackson said during the committee meeting.

But Republicans won their majority in 2010 in districts drawn by Democrats, said House committee chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett. And, he said, mapmakers redrawing legislative districts frequently take into account where incumbents live.

Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said incumbency protection probably was included to let GOP lawmakers, especially those in marginal districts, know their leaders want to avoid creating dramatically different maps that would jeopardize their seats.

And, he noted, the maps will be in play for only two more election cycles. They will be redrawn again to reflect population changes after the 2020 Census.

The omission of racial considerations among the nine criteria the committee adopted got a heated response from Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham.

“What the court told you was that racial demographics played a major role in what you did,” Michaux said during the hearing. To correct that, “race has to be in there somewhere.”

Lewis disagreed that race must be a factor and said omitting it was a way of showing the court the districts are race-neutral.

McLennan said omitting race allows the GOP to try to avoid the issue the three-judge panel said made the 28 districts unconstitutional.

“Race is inherent in other things that the mapmakers would look at. They’re inherent in voting patterns. They’re inherent in voter registration,” McLennan said.

“We should be able to disentangle race and party ID, but the reality is that African-Americans vote with the Democratic Party 90 percent of the time,” Cooper said. “Voting rights broadly defined and redistricting are part of the same debate. It is a debate about partisanship, and it’s a debate about race.”

Both sides have reasonable arguments, Cooper said. Democrats say the Voting Rights Act and the history of racial discrimination in North Carolina require minority protections when remapping. Republicans contend the process should move to more color-blind methods.

While the debate is prickly now, other issues are likely to take priority as the November 2018 election approaches.

“Really, these good-government kinds of issues don’t tend to be big drivers of voter decision making,” McLennan said.

“I think voters are largely confused by what’s going on” with the constant redistricting of state and congressional seats, Taylor said. Voters are likely to be more interested in trying to figure out what district they’re in, and who is running to represent them, than understanding how the changes developed.