News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. lawmakers get to work redrawing congressional districts

N.C. lawmakers so far have spent two days huddled around computers in a garishly lit legislative committee room, working to fit the puzzle pieces in what will become newly redrawn congressional districts. 

An 18-member Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting began laying out criteria for maps Tuesday, Nov. 5. Thursday, legislators were still hunched over screens, looking at possible population splits and inching slowly toward new congressional districts for the 2020 election. 

Lawmakers are working in small groups with different maps. At least one group started with a “blank slate,” while another made changes to an existing map drawn years ago as a nonpartisan simulation. They will eventually choose one base map. Legislators could choose to amend that map, then send it to the full House and Senate for a vote.

As of Thursday afternoon, the legislative website had posted at least four draft maps, all of them linked to Democratic lawmakers.

Carolina Journal made multiple attempts Thursday to clarify the progress of the committee, but received no immediate answer. 

The work was catalyzed by ongoing congressional redistricting lawsuit, Harper v. Lewis. Last month, a panel of three Wake County Superior Court judges ordered a preliminary injunction against North Carolina’s existing congressional map. The 13 districts were subject to an extreme partisan gerrymander, they said. 

That case is similar to a recent legislative redistricting lawsuit. In August, Judges Paul Ridgeway, Alma Hinton, and Joseph Crosswhite ruled legislative maps in Common Cause v. Lewis were also subject to an extreme partisan gerrymander. The three-judge panel — the same panel that’s presiding over Harper v. Lewis — told lawmakers they had to draw new maps. Legislators weren’t allowed to consider political or racial data, and they were required to open the process to North Carolina residents. 

Just as in the legislative redistricting process, congressional maps are being drawn in the open. Audio and video feeds are available for the public to listen and watch. The committee room — a large, fluorescently lit space on the fifth floor of the N.C. Legislative Office Building — is open to the public while lawmakers are working.  

But following the map drawing can be a challenge for anyone not well-versed in the complicated process, especially for those who can’t be there. 

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, said some lawmakers began at ground zero. 

“When you do state maps, you use counties, cities, and all that stuff, [but] the feds are just concerned about their census blocks — little segments of people — so you try your best not to split them and take into consideration other lines of interest,” Torbett said. 

There are nearly 289,000 census blocks in North Carolina. According to the 2010 census, which guides this redistricting process, each of the state’s 13 congressional districts should hold 733,499 people. Splitting those blocks evenly is tedious work. 

Torbett agreed the redistricting process often gets weedy, but he doesn’t know of any way to make it easier for people to understand.

“I don’t know if an algorithm has been developed to do that yet,” Torbett said. 

Lawmakers have to fit the entire North Carolina population into 13 equal districts. Torbett said there’s little room for error. 

“With Senate and House maps, you have a 5% swing with population. Well, the feds gave us one body, one person, so that makes it extremely difficult,” Torbett said.

The court hasn’t in any way instructed the legislature to act or not act in certain ways, said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, co-chair of the redistricting committee. The court just said the 2016 map can’t be used for candidate filing in December. 

Lawmakers opted to go ahead and redraw congressional districts to avoid any delay to the primaries. The candidate filing period opens Dec. 2. 

On Nov. 12, people will have the opportunity to share their thoughts on the map-drawing process.