Recent developments in North Carolina’s long-running debate over congressional election maps highlight the importance of apples-to-apples comparisons.
It’s a basic concept: Limit comparisons to items that can be compared reasonably. But too much of today’s political discourse relies instead on apples-to-oranges comparisons, those comparisons that are unreasonable or perhaps impossible.
When judging North Carolina’s recent economic performance, it makes sense to compare the state’s growth over a certain time period to other states’ growth over the same time period. That’s comparing apples to apples. When comparing this state’s average teacher compensation to other states, an apples-to-apples comparison requires adjustments for cost of living, benefits offered, credentials obtained, and the average experience level of the state’s teaching force.
And when it comes to comparing election maps, it’s important to compare maps drawn with the same data in hand and the same set of rules and restrictions in mind.
This brings us to the comparison between one set of election maps drawn by the Republican-led General Assembly and a separate set drawn by a group of retired N.C. judges.
Before turning to the closest approximation of an apples-to-apples comparison of those maps, it’s important to dispense with one “red herring.” A leading state news organization, perhaps unintentionally, created a distraction from that apples-to-apples comparison in its coverage of the judges’ new maps.
Under the headline “Experiment shows ‘better way’ for voting districts,” the News & Observer’s website posted illustrations of two of the most cringe-inducing congressional districts in North Carolina history: the 1st and 12th. “These maps show how two congressional districts looked in North Carolina before this year, when a three-judge federal panel ruled they were illegal racial gerrymanders,” the caption said.
The article never references those two districts, but the choice of illustration implies that the new maps drawn by former judges offer an alternative to the unsightly 1st and 12th Districts. There’s another critical implication: that Republican lawmakers’ efforts to gerrymander an electoral advantage prompted them to create those two districts.
Here’s the problem: Versions of those two districts predate Republican control of the N.C. General Assembly by 20 years.
The 1st and 12th Districts first emerged in close approximations to their present forms for the 1992 election. A federal order forced North Carolina to draw two majority-minority congressional districts after the 1990 census.
Democrats who controlled the General Assembly at the time created a 1st District with tentacles creeping far enough from its northeastern North Carolina base to encompass as many African-American voters as possible to meet the feds’ mandate. Meanwhile, the new 12th District stretched from Durham to Gastonia, often traveling a path that looked a lot like Interstate 85.
Ten years later, Democrats again had the power to draw election maps. They maintained the same basic forms of the 1st and 12th Districts, although the 12th now covered a little less territory. It stretched from Greensboro to Charlotte.
Republicans gained their first opportunity to draw election maps to their advantage after winning control of the General Assembly in 2010, the same year as the latest census. While the GOP-led legislature made other major changes to congressional maps, the 1st and 12th Districts maintained their same basic shapes.
As crazy as the 1st and 12th Districts looked under the Republicans’ plan, legislative leaders probably believed that federal courts were unlikely to throw out districts that had survived two decades of previous legal scrutiny.
The former N.C. judges who released a simulated set of election maps this week did not take the history of the 1st and 12th Districts into account. In fact, they finalized work on their plan after federal judges had tossed out Republicans’ 2011 election maps — the same maps that had survived previous court challenges and had been used for elections in 2012 and 2014.
There’s another key difference between maps drawn by legislators and maps drawn by the retired judges. Legislators paid more attention to ensuring that each of the states’ 13 congressional districts had the exact same number of voters. In contrast, the judges’ maps allowed for variations in the districts’ population. One district had nearly 700 more voters than the ideal-size district, while another had an undercount of 715 voters.
Those variations amount to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the ideal-size congressional district’s overall population, and it’s not clear that courts would strike down districts with that level of variation from the “one-person, one-vote” legal standard.
Still, the judges’ maps could not end up looking as neat and tidy if they wanted to match legislators’ strict adherence to the goal of making congressional election district populations equal.
This means it’s impossible to conduct a true apples-to-apples comparison of congressional election maps drawn by legislators with maps drawn by judges. But one can come close.
The maps voters are using for November’s congressional elections emerged after courts tossed the 2011 maps earlier this year. Gone are the old 1st and 12th Districts. Legislators also declined to take into account the homes of current congressional incumbents. Their new plan lumped two incumbents into the 4th District while leaving the 12th District without a resident incumbent. (Democrat Alma Adams moved into the new 12th District rather than try to defend her seat from the new Republican-leaning 13th District that included her old home.)
In addition to the differences associated with “one-person, one-vote” considerations, legislators clearly pursued a goal of creating maps that would help elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats. Here’s the result of their work.
In comparison, here are the “nonpartisan” maps generated by former judges. According to their calculations, these maps would be likely to elect six Republicans and four Democrats, leaving three seats as “swing” districts.
One suspects that the relative beauty of these two sets of maps depends on the beholder. What is clear is that these are the proper sets of maps for the closest approximation to an apples-to-apples comparison.
Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.