Map of WNC's state House districts under the district plan that federal courts have now rejected.

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on demographic changes in western North Carolina and their impact on politics and representation in the region.

With a focus of growth primarily around cities and college towns, what’s happening in North Carolina’s westernmost counties mirrors demographic changes in the rest of the state.

But as a region, the largely rural area is outpaced by even more rapid growth in other regions, mainly those along the 1-85/1-40 corridor from Charlotte through the Triad and the Triangle — a swathe of cities also called “the Piedmont crescent.” One political consequence of that shift in population is that when the General Assembly draws up new districts in 2021, WNC is likely to see a consolidation of districts, losing at least one and maybe more state House districts, greatly affecting the territory covered by others, and altering or even consolidating Senate districts. (This aspect of demographic change was explored in more depth in part 1 of this report.)

Rebecca Tippett, a demographics researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill and director of Carolina Demography, said the changes will make the next round of redistricting an even more difficult challenge in western and eastern areas of the state where consolidation is likely to occur. The results could easily move sitting legislators into the same district and gather widely different areas under one representative.

“There are going to be a lot of questions,” she said in a recent interview with Carolina Public Press. “What makes the most sense? What’s the most practical?”

Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer said the strong chance that some WNC districts will have cover more territory could heighten the region’s longstanding sense of isolation from Raleigh.

“Those districts are going to be so big, will people truly know their representatives?” he said. The flipside, he added, will be the added work for elected officials to stay connected to communities in larger districts. “It’s going to be difficult for the representatives and constituents as well.”

New maps, old battles

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, said what happens in places like WNC is one of many reasons he’s worried how the next redistricting will play out.

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A recent Carolina Demography study found that demographic changes since the last redistricting in 2011 have resulted in dozens of House and Senate districts with populations that diverge greatly from the ideal size.

If those trends continue as expected, the electorate in 2020 in those districts will be very different.

Phillips said the 2020 election, which will decide the composition of the chambers and which party controls redistricting, is too far away to even begin guessing about the outcome. But with so many state legislative districts and all of the congressional districts already out of balance, he said it is hard to see how the next set of district maps could keep the same structure in place. “The way the lines were drawn in western North Carolina and other areas have begun to be impossible to duplicate,” he said.

Phillips said the uncertainty underlines the need for redistricting reform, one that takes raw partisanship out of the equation. “One party shouldn’t be able to redistrict another party to irrelevance,” he said.

The result of heavily gerrymandered districts, he said has been a rise of partisanship and a steady decline of accountability. He pointed to the number of uncontested races this year as an example. “Forty percent of the candidates have no opposition. Ninety percent for all practical purposes,” he said. “People are coming to Raleigh increasingly unaccountable.”

Bitzer said he, too, sees increasing partisanship and more hard-line positions as consequences of districts where the serious challenges for incumbents come from within their own party. But it’s important to remember, he said, that over time the maps are a reflection of people “sorting themselves” into like-minded communities.

“It’s not just the maps, it’s us,” Bitzer said. “It’s where we live.”

That’s happening on a statewide level and at a local level. Buncombe County is a good example, Bitzer said. “You can talk to someone in Asheville and someone from one of the rural areas and it’s as if you are talking to people from different counties within the same county.”

That self-sorting is what’s driving the rural/urban divide in the legislature, Bitzer said, and it will drive the next redistricting.

Should the GOP still control the legislature in 2020, he said, they’ll have to make a choice about whether to cede urban areas of the state to Democratic control and craft a majority out of suburban and rural seats. “That’s only going to exacerbate the divide,” Bitzer said.

 Who is moving in?

As the first part of this series pointed out, the biggest driver of demographic change in western North Carolina is migration. In counties that are growing slowly or losing population, net migration isn’t enough to keep up with loss of population due to aging and mortality. In counties that are high growth, even those less impacted by an aging population, migration is still the key.

In most of the state those moving in tend to be millennials and young families. In WNC and parts of coastal North Carolina, the mix includes a substantial number of retirees.

The rise of millennials in WNC and statewide is beginning to have a noticeable impact on the mix in voting registration, Bitzer said.

The most obvious difference, he said, is that millennial voters tend to be less tied to party affiliation.

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The later half of the 20th century saw a partisan transformation in voting patterns characterized by a decline in Democratic Party domination and the rise of voters registering Republican. Bitzer said what’s happening now is a second transformation resulting from millennials’ preference to be independent of party labels. “A significant plurality are registering unaffiliated,” Bitzer said. “This second transformation is more generational than partisan,” he said.

As a result, the WNC region has now reached near parity between voters registering as Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated, with each around one-third of the registrations. Statewide, Democrats hold a 41 percent plurality, with 30 percent registered with the GOP and 28 percent unaffiliated.

Bitzer runs an analysis of voter registration data each month when the figures are updated by the state Board of Elections.

Results from January showed unaffiliated voters are now make up the majority of registrants in Polk and Transylvania counties. They are plentiful in Buncombe County, where they outnumber Republicans by more than 18,000 and Henderson County where they have pulled almost even with the GOP. They outnumber Democrats in Avery, Clay, Henderson and Mitchell counties; and outnumber Republicans in Buncombe, Jackson, Madison and Swain counties.

But Bitzer cautions against mistaking independence from party labels as being less partisan. Most unaffiliated voters lean toward one party or the other. “Right now, we’re locked into partisanship,” Bitzer said. Only a thin wedge of North Carolina voters, he said, remain persuadable.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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