The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled on April 28 that partisan gerrymandering claims were “nonjusticiable, political questions” and ordered the General Assembly to redraw the state’s House, Senate, and congressional maps. The legislature will take up that task later this year.
With the threat of a (successful) political gerrymandering lawsuit largely behind them, how should legislators draw those districts? The short answer is that they should use the same criteria they used when they last drew districts but apply them more strictly.
Those standards include requirements the North Carolina Constitution imposes for state legislative districts: making districts roughly equal in population, requiring that they be contiguous, and minimizing dividing counties.
Other standards legislators used in 2021 that they should use again this year include splitting as few precincts as possible, keeping municipalities within the same district, and keeping districts compact. They should also prohibit using partisan or racial data again when drawing districts.
Legislators should go further by more strictly applying those standards than they did in 2021 and adopting numerical limits when possible. My colleague Jim Stirling and I provide some of those numeric targets in our research report: “Limiting Gerrymandering in North Carolina.” We considered congressional and North Carolina Senate maps in the report. (Legislators can set similar standards for the state House map.)
For example, the General Assembly should divide counties no more than 13 times and split no more than 13 precincts when drawing the state’s 14 congressional districts. They should seek to keep municipalities whole within congressional districts, although the geography of our cities can make that difficult. For larger cities, they should strive to keep all the “core precincts” (which we define as precincts wholly contained within city limits) within the same congressional district. We considered North Carolina’s 10 largest cities when looking for core precinct splits.
Legislators did not meet those standards in 2021; they divided counties 14 times and split 24 precincts.
The court-appointed special masters who drew a new congressional map in 2022 fared no better. Their map had fewer county splits (13) and split fewer precincts (again, 13) than did the General Assembly’s. However, they did a worse job of keeping municipalities whole, dividing more municipalities (50) than did the General Assembly (42). Looking at the 10 largest cities, the special masters split the core precincts of five cities while the General Assembly split two.
Similarly, the North Carolina Senate map passed by the General Assembly in 2021 had 19 precinct splits spread across the state, even though only splitting as few as three precincts (all in Wake County) is necessary. They made the minimum possible number of county splits (15) because adherence to that limit is required under the 2002 Stephenson v. Bartlett ruling.
Putting the standards to the test
If both the General Assembly and the court-appointed special masters failed to adhere to strict redistricting standards, perhaps it’s impossible to meet those standards. To test if map-drawing under these restrictions is possible, we recruited 15 students from North Carolina State University. We gave them two hours of training on redistricting and how to use a redistricting computer program. We then gave them five hours to draw a congressional map and another five to draw a state Senate map (we did not cover the state House).
The students showed that adhering to strict redistricting standards is not easy but can be done. They produced four congressional maps and eight state Senate maps that complied with strict standards. We believe that with a little more time, all the students could have created compliant maps.
All but one of the student-produced maps fell within the normal range of expected election results established by Drs. Jowei Chen and Daniel Magleby’s expert testimony in the Harper v. Hall I (2021) redistricting lawsuit. See the report for details.
Legislators should adopt stricter redistricting standards and stick with them when redrawing state legislative and congressional maps later this year. Our research found that they can successfully do so, making districts more representative of their communities and limiting the impact of partisan gerrymandering.