This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Mitch Kokai, John Locke Foundation Director of Communications.

RALEIGH — Take a look at the proposed map for congressional elections in North Carolina, and you’ll notice right away: It features some crazy-looking districts.

It’s hard to deny that the 12th district — snaking from Greensboro to Charlotte — looks as if the child coloring the rest of the map missed a few spots along the edges of the surrounding 5th, 6th, 8th, and 9th districts.

The northeastern 1st District features three extended tentacles — including one that strikes this observer as an eastward-pointing elephant’s trunk. And the 4th District? Comparisons to the map of Italy are not out of the question.

One day ago, in this same space, regular Daily Journal columnist John Hood labeled the congressional map a good example of gerrymandering.

Aha! This must be evidence of a dastardly Republican scheme to resegregate the state and return our politics to the era of Jim Crow, if not the antebellum status quo. Right?

Well, not really. The “evil Republican scheme” argument is likely the best one available to those in the business of bashing the GOP or promoting Democrats, but it ignores some key facts — facts that make the congressional map’s configuration a little less loony.

The first mistake map critics make is to treat the so-called Rucho-Lewis plan in isolation. The redistricting chairmen, Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, didn’t just approach a blank map of North Carolina and draw North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts from scratch.

Peruse the current congressional map — the one Democrats drew a decade ago — and you might notice a lot of similarities. Good and bad similarities.

Each district in the new map retains the same general geographic base as the districts in the 2001 map. Search for a familiar district, such as southeastern North Carolina’s 7th District or western North Carolina’s 11th, and you’ll find it with little trouble.

No two incumbents are thrown into the same district. Though media reports had speculated that Republican mapmakers would pit two pairs of Democratic incumbents against each other, the Rucho-Lewis map forces no sitting representative to fight primary or general election battles with current colleagues to keep their seats.

Note that the 1st and 12th districts in the 2001 plan look just as odd as the plans on the table for lawmakers’ consideration later this month. While the 4th District is more compact in the 2001 plan, the 2nd and 13th districts in that plan have far less defensible shapes from an aesthetic standpoint than the new proposal.

Does the Rucho-Lewis map for the 2nd, 4th, and 13th districts look better than the 2001 map? That’s a judgment call, but there’s certainly no open-and-shut case for the map that’s been on the books for the last five congressional elections.

The point is that Rucho, Lewis, and their colleagues have tweaked a plan North Carolinians have known and used for a decade. It’s a plan that survived scrutiny from electoral overseers in Washington, D.C.

Census data and federal review

That leads us to the second mistake map critics make. Those critics seem to ignore the fact that new maps must incorporate population changes revealed by 2010 census data without running afoul of the federal government officials who will review the plans for compliance with Voting Rights Acts standards.

Each district must have roughly the same number of voters. As the state’s population clusters to a greater extent in the Triangle, Triad, and Charlotte, mapmakers must adjust congressional districts to reflect that change. That means otherwise rural districts must pick up some urban population, or they’ll be forced to cover such a wide geographical base that they’ll lose all sense of compactness.

A byproduct of the effort to reflect a decade’s worth of population changes is the fact that urban areas can be split into multiple congressional districts. Such splits have led to complaints about large counties such as Wake being portioned among four different districts.

Would it make more sense for all of Wake’s voters to be packed into two or three districts? Perhaps. But there’s a strong argument that Wake would gain more clout in Washington and — to the chagrin of a limited-government conservative — more opportunities to secure congressional pork with more representatives beholden to at least some of the counties’ voters.

Along with map changes dictated by population shifts, decades of litigation ensure that Republicans could not tamper much with minority groups’ voting strength, even if they desired that outcome. While the U.S. Justice Department and federal courts have been frustratingly vague at times when handing down rulings about the extent to which legislators must incorporate race in their maps, the legal record is clear enough to place some constraints on mapmakers of either party.

In other words, Republicans knew from the start that they couldn’t pack, dilute, “ghetto-ize,” or otherwise thwart government-identified minority groups with these new maps. Study the numbers. In the two districts with the largest concentrations of minority voters, blacks make up roughly half of the voting-age population. Not 70 percent. Not 60 percent. Roughly half.

A third mistake involves assuming that a congressional map that is generally friendlier to Republicans must in and of itself provide evidence of a nefarious scheme. It makes sense for Democrats and their allies to make this claim. It’s not true.

Making up for Democratic gerrymandering

What is true is that Republicans secured more than 54 percent of the votes in the 2010 North Carolina congressional races. It was the GOP’s largest share of the congressional vote since the state secured its 13th seat in the U.S. House after the 2000 census. Yet Democrats, with 45 percent of the vote, won seven of the 13 congressional races in 2010 — in the same year Republicans made overwhelming gains in the state General Assembly.

It’s clear existing congressional districts did not reflect North Carolina voters’ preferences in that election. It’s also clear that Republicans drawing new maps today with GOP interests in mind have plenty of room to make adjustments that favor those interests while still abiding by their promise to create fair, legal districts.

Observers should avoid the additional mistake of framing the merits of the new maps in terms of their likely impacts on a single election involving current incumbents. Could Republicans swing as many as four races from the “D” column to the “R” column with the new maps? Potentially. But that outcome is certain only in Republicans’ wishes and Democrats’ nightmares. That outcome assumes that Republicans would hold all existing districts and pick up every targeted Democratic seat. Elections rarely follow such a one-sided course.

Would the new maps guarantee that Republicans could hold a 10-3 — or even an 8-5 — advantage in North Carolina congressional elections for the next decade? Hardly. To make some districts “more” Republican, it’s necessary to make other districts “less” Republican.

A GOP representative other than Walter Jones would face a stiff battle to win the new version of the 3rd District. Piedmont districts previously packed with Republicans, thanks to Democratic mapmakers in 2001, would have more Democrats now. Those elections would no longer represent the slam-dunk victories the GOP has counted on for the past decade.

Wake Forest University political scientist John Dinan concluded recently that “the proposed map would increase the chance that a district could be won by the party not currently holding the district” in eight of the 13 districts. Republicans now hold the seats in four of the eight districts Dinan labels as more competitive under the proposed plan.

In other words, the new map could give Republicans a 10-3 advantage under the absolute best circumstances for the GOP. But another Democratic tide like the one witnessed in 2008 could allow Democrats to build just as large an advantage within the state’s congressional delegation.

Who should draw the maps?

Dispense with the less serious arguments, and you’re left with this: Some people just don’t like the idea of Republican legislators drawing new election maps for North Carolina.

To those who would prefer that Democrats take over that duty, this observer says: Tough. Democrats had decades of opportunities to draw maps that removed the element of partisan advantage. They never took that opportunity.

Those who prefer a system in which neither legislative Democrats nor Republicans lead the redistricting process will find a more sympathetic response. The John Locke Foundation has supported efforts to reform the redistricting process.

Reforms should emphasize rules that limit the amount of damage partisans of any type can inflict on the process. With those rules in place, the composition of the group drawing the maps would lose some of its significance. An independent commission makes the most sense, but even a group of legislative staffers constrained by the right rules could craft decent maps for future elections.

Until North Carolina reforms its process — and voters might have the chance to make that change through a constitutional amendment as early as 2012 — redistricting remains a partisan process with partisan considerations. But it’s important not to mistake Republican efforts to maximize their advantages — within the existing rules of the game — for an imagined attempt to hurl North Carolina back into a dark period of the state’s electoral past.