Exile on Jones Street: Redistricting reckoning later than sooner

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

May be kind of shocking but state Sen. Trudy Wade’s Greensboro gerrymandering is not the first and certainly won’t be the last time voting maps are redone to suit the majority.

In the world of the North Carolina legislature, the victors not only get to rewrite history, they also get to redraw the maps on which the future will be determined.

It is a self-perpetuating cycle that the Democrats made great use of and Republicans have perfected into a full precision-guided assault on one-person/one-vote.

Something that makes Wade’s attempt a little more ominous is that since the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down pre-clearance requirements under the Voting Rights Act, there is no legal backstop for local plans before they take effect. Voters will be able to sue, but the burden of proof has shifted from the state or local government, which used to have to prove no harm, to those claiming disenfranchisement. These are arduous, slow-moving and expensive cases to bring and several election cycles can pass in the meantime. You know, justice delayed.

In the case of North Carolina, the big gerrymandering of 2011, which skewed congressional and state legislative districts in unprecedented fashion, has so far navigated the courts and survived for two full election cycles.

Whether those districts will survive all the way to the next redistricting is impossible to determine, but if they do there are signs that by then it will be even more glaringly obvious how out of whack the districts are.

UNC researchers with the Carolina Population Center working with the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, provided a glimpse into that off-balance world of 2020 with a look at how the districts passed in 2011 have changed based on demographic shifts since the last census.

Using 2013 projections, the researchers found that only two of the state’s 13 congressional districts — the 6th and 7th  were within the 1 percent compliance requirement for optimal population for the districts. All but one, the 1st Congressional District in the northeast, had populations that had outgrown the optimal range, some by a lot.

It’s clear that driving this change is the disproportional growth patterns in the state, the urban regions filling with newcomers and younger families and the aging populations in the rural regions losing numbers.

When you look at the study’s data for the state legislative districts, where the compliance requirement is plus or minus 5 percent, the differences are even more distinct.

The study shows that in just two years after the passage of the 2011 maps, nine out of the 50 state Senate districts are out of compliance. The House is even more uneven with 44 out of 120 state House districts exceeding the optimal range. House districts in more urban areas around Greensboro, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Durham and Raleigh have added voters, while districts east and west of the Triad and in the western mountains have lost them.

The demographic shifts are no fluke and are likely to accelerate along with the economy as the state returns to traditional growth rates.

With this much deviation already, the 2020 census count is likely to reveal a huge disparity in the representation of North Carolinians.

This is not some abstract idea. Over the past few years, legislators have been both willing and able to run roughshod over cities and towns in part because the clout of the urban areas has been diminished under the current districts.

Without a substantive change in the way the rules for redistricting work, the 2021 legislative session will see yet another behind-the-scenes strategy to redraw lines for political advantage.

Change in the process does not appear imminent. Last week, a bipartisan group of mostly House members lined up to speak in support of an independent redistricting commission similar to what other states have adopted. That got a cool reception from the Senate leadership, with one senator saying he looked forward to killing the bill once it crossed over from the House.

I know some of you got your hopes up when the idea was announced, but I’d interpret that as a no.