In just over a year, Americans across the country will head to the polls to vote for members of Congress, state legislatures and many local offices. That goes for North Carolinians, too. And the choices that voters have will depend on the district lines that are currently being drawn through a process known as redistricting.
So what is it?
Most elected officials, including members of Congress, state legislators and, locally, county and city officials, are elected by voters grouped into districts. But because populations change over time, every 10 years, after the official Census count, districts are redrawn to be reflective of the new electorate. That process is happening now.
In North Carolina, state legislators are tasked with redrawing districts. There are 19 members of the House Redistricting Committee and 16 members of the Senate Redistricting Committee. But states like NC, in which legislators are tasked with redrawing districts, have shown to have a contentious history with the task. Often, lawmakers draw up maps to seize political advantage for the next decade, otherwise known as gerrymandering.
Our state has been a hot spot for legal fights over political maps for the last three decades, including several court cases in the last 10 years. After the Republican takeover of the General Assembly in the 2010 elections, Republican leadership set out to redraw maps in their favor, leading to challenges in court in 2016, 2018 and, most recently, in 2019. While gerrymandering occurs in many forms in differing states, most of the Republican-made maps in NC were struck down for discriminating specifically and “surgically” against Black voters and Democrats. Now, with new Census data at hand, state legislators are tasked with creating fair maps.
According to Census data, North Carolina’s population grew by 9.5 percent, adding 903,905 residents, which means the state gained an extra Congressional representative and coinciding district. At the city level, Greensboro grew by 10.3 percent, adding more than 30,000 residents and remains the state’s third largest city behind Charlotte and Raleigh. During the same time period, Winston-Salem grew by 8.7 percent for a total population of 249,545, while High Point grew by 9.3 percent to 114,059.
How does redistricting work and why it is important?
For the last several weeks, members of the state redistricting committees have been hosting public hearings in various cities across the state. On Sept. 14, close to 100 people showed up to Forsyth County Technical College to voice their opinions about how the state should be divided this time around. Several people urged the legislators in attendance to keep cities together.
Al Jabbar, president of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County chapter of the NAACP, warned the representatives against “packing” and “cracking,” two common gerrymandering practices used to either dilute the voting power of a particular group across several districts or concentrate the voting power into one district to reduce their power in others. One example was a few years ago when legislators split NC A&T State University in half, creating two precincts on campus.
“Cities and towns should not be split unnecessarily,” Jabbar stated during the meeting. “And people shouldn’t be packed into a few districts.”
In 2011, when the state legislators redrew the maps, they used racial data to pack Black voters into as few districts as possible. This created as many districts with majority Black voters as possible, thus limiting their voting power. In 2019, Republicans set out to diminish the power of Democrats’ vote by packing them into a small number of districts to dilute the vote. Currently, the Congressional map has Greensboro, Winston-Salem and most of High Point in the same district, but many speakers on Sept. 14 noted that High Point should not be split. Now, as legislators redraw maps for the 2022 elections, they are working on a very tight deadline because of the late Census data, according to Lekha Shupeck, the NC director for All on the Line, a national organization that works to end gerrymandering and increase awareness about redistricting.
“We are in a situation where we’re having a very abbreviated process,” Shupeck said. “The last time we redrew maps we had five to six months. Now we have just eight to 10 weeks.”
In addition to that, the public hearings across the state have been held typically in the middle of the day, making it difficult for people who work to attend.
“It doesn’t give people an opportunity to give feedback,” she said.
That’s why the biggest thing that All on the Line is advocating for is transparency in the process.
“At minimum we would want to see what we did in 2019, where they did the map-drawing in public,” Shupeck said. “Ideally what would happen is the map-drawing would happen in public hearings across the state and the parts being drawn would be relevant to the district. I would love to see drawings at they happen in real time.”
So far, the state has held 11 public hearings across the state and will hold two more on Wednesday in Wilmington and on Thursday in Fayetteville. For those who weren’t able to attend the meetings but wanted to give input on how the Congressional and state maps should be drawn, voters can submit comments on the general assembly’s website.
At this rate, Shupeck said that the actual map-drawing process will start sometime in October with the final maps to be completed by mid November so that candidates can start filing for the 2022 election.
After the maps are drawn, the committees will vote on whether to approve of the maps. Shupeck said she has been told that, because of the tight timeline, there won’t be another public hearing after the committee members decide on a map, to hear what the public thinks about it.
“Because we’re having this more abbreviated process, it shuts people out,” she said.
Still, Shupeck noted that it’s important to understand the redistricting process and to get involved if able because of the impact redistricting has on everybody’s lives.
“Redistricting impacts every issue that anybody cares about,” Shupeck.
She noted issues like Medicaid and education being important topics that voters care about but haven’t been passed or fixed because of past gerrymandering. In order to fix that, Shupeck said that the ideal process would to not have legislators drawing the maps. Instead, she advocates for having a nonpartisan redistricting body do the mapmaking.
“Taking legislators out of the process would be the main thing that would create a fairer process in North Carolina,” she said.
States that have opted for this model include California, Michigan, Virginia and New Jersey. And locally, at the city level, Greensboro recently created an advisory committee of people appointed by city council to help create a new map for the city.
Redistricting in Greensboro, High Point and Guilford County
Like at the national and state level, legislative bodies at the local level are in charge of redistricting. That means for the city of Greensboro, the city council is tasked with drawing city maps and that goes for the county commissioners and the school board for county maps, too. However, for Greensboro, an advisory committee was created and consists of seven members who were appointed by nonpartisan groups.
Rev. Bradley Hunt of the Greensboro Chapter of the NAACP told TCB that as of Tuesday, the committee had narrowed down about four working maps to one proposed option. This option, known as “C2 Draft Map” was created after consulting with attorneys hired by the city from the Parker Poe firm. The map, linked on the city’s redistricting website, moves precinct G26 from District 2 to District 3 and Precinct G13 from District 3 to District 4. This Thursday, members of the public will have the opportunity to submit their comments during the redistricting committee meeting. The city plans to upload an interactive map with the current redistricting draft maps online on their website on Wednesday.
The toughest part of the redistricting process, Hunt said, was trying to make sure that the population sizes for all of the districts were about equal. According to state law, the population of each district must be within five percent of the ideal. Greensboro’s population is 299,035 so each district would need close to 59,807 residents. Going into the redistricting process, District 2 had 62,801 residents, making it the largest district in the city. District 5, with 58,060 residents, had the least. With the proposed C2 draft map, the population sizes for each district would be as follows: 61,739 in District 1; 58,172 in District 2; 61,042 in District 3; 60,022 in District 4 and 58,060 in District 5. One of the reasons both District 2 and 5 would have the lowest populations is because data shows that these two districts are the mostly likely to grow and have the most potential for population growth, Hunt said.
“We see that there has been growth in East Greensboro so as we look to the future, I think we want to make sure that we give everyone one person, one vote,” Hunt said.
On the other hand, District 4 which is “landlocked” by Districts 5, 1 and 3, has less room to grow because of lack of housing and vacant lots, which District 2 has a lot of.
Ultimately, the evaluations done by the committee are strictly recommendations and will have to be voted on by city council before the final map gets decided. In the end, Hunt said their job was to make sure the maps were fair.
“We just wanted to make sure that the maps reflect the population of the city,” he said.
At the county level, Skip Alston, the board chair of the county commissioners told TCB that they don’t have an advisory committee or a separate entity drawing their maps. Instead, he said that each commissioner is working on creating their own maps using the county’s redistricting app, which they will bring to their next meeting on Oct. 6. The public has the opportunity to also create county maps using the app and submit them for consideration until Thursday at 5 p.m. Because the mapmaking is being left to the commissioners themselves, Alston stated that they haven’t narrowed down the maps yet. He noted that he hopes to have maps to review on Oct. 6 and to have a possible final map by Oct. 7.
“I’m going to make sure it’s fair based on the increased numbers that we’ve had,” Alston said. “Some of those increases are in more districts than others so we have to even those out. Some of the precincts in some districts have to be changed. We’ll take those into account along with demographics.”
Based on the 2020 Census, Guilford County has a population of 541,299, an increase of 10.8 percent in the last ten years.
According to Janson Silvers with Guilford County Schools, the school board is not redrawing their maps. Instead, Silvers said that they will likely be using the same maps that the county commissioners end up drawing for school board member districts.
“We don’t have the ability to handle drawing our own district lines,” Silver told TCB.
While the rules for how maps can be drawn differ slightly between the state and local guidelines, the basic rules are the same. The districts have to have equal populations, be contiguous, be compact and include communities of interest.
In High Point, Deputy City Manager Randy McCaslin told TCB that because they don’t have city council elections for another two years, that they haven’t started the redistricting process yet.
“We’re lucky,” McCaslin said. “We’re not under an immediate gun to get everything redistricted and our ward maps redrawn.”
High Point’s population increased by 9.3 percent to 114,059 in the last 10 years, according to Census data. Using this information, McCaslin said that they’ll likely start the redistricting process sometime in 2022 and they’ll probably use an outside consultant, much like Greensboro is doing this year.
“They’ll look at the federal requirements, the population shifts and come up with recommendations to recommend to city council but we haven’t started that process yet,” McCaslin said.
What about Winston-Salem and Forsyth County?
Like with High Point, Winston-Salem city council had their elections last fall so the city is not in a rush to redistrict just yet. While some cities have staggered elections for their council, Winston-Salem voters elect all eight ward members and the mayor every four years so the next election wouldn’t be until 2024.
Because of this, the city won’t be looking at data from the Census to draw new maps until October, said Aaron King, interim assistant city manager for Winston-Salem.
“That will be the kickoff to the redistricting process in Winston-Salem,” King said. “Our next municipal elections won’t be until 2024 so our time frame isn’t as quick as other local governments. We’re in a good situation in that we have more time.”
While the legal standard for drawing districts is that they have to be within a 5 percent differential from the ideal, King said that as a city, they would like to be under 2 percent if possible.
“We try to get that different much tighter than 5 percent to ensure the ‘one person, one vote’ ideal,” King said.
King noted that once city staff starts looking at the Census data and presenting information to city council, they’ll start hosting public information sessions that will allow the community to give input on the new maps. That will likely take place early next year, he said. And then they’ll also host a public meeting before the final maps are decided, King said.
At the county level, Forsyth County Attorney Gordon Watkins told TCB that because county commissioners have staggered terms, they are working on redistricting right now.
“Our board has staggered terms so we have elections every two years,” Watkins said. “So we definitely need to get it done soon.”
According to the 2020 Census, Forsyth County’s population is 382,590, an increase of 9.1 percent since 2010.
Last year, Republican incumbents David Plyler, Gloria Whisenhunt and Richard Linville were all re-elected to District B. The four remaining commissioners on the board — Tonya McDaniel (D) and Fleming El-Amin (D) of District, Don Martin (R) of District B and Ted Kaplan (D) in the at-large seat — will be up for re-election in 2022. According to Watkins, the county will be holding an information meeting for the public on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at the county commissioner’s office and via live stream. Based on the population changes for the county, Watkins said that there is a need to decrease the population for District B and a need to increase the population for District A. That being the case, so far Watkins has presented the commissioners with four different maps that would bring each district closer to their ideal sizes. The options so far are to move Precinct 033, 122, 601 or 905 from District B to District A. The plan, Watkins said, is to narrow down the options to one map by their Oct. 7 meeting and to have the board vote on a final map by Oct. 21.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools is also likely in the midst of redistricting at the moment because both have several seats up for re-election in 2022. However, TCB could not confirm the details of their redistricting process in time for this article.