Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, speaks at a press conference following a July 28 hearing in Greensboro. Surrounding her are voting rights advocates and plaintiffs in the Convington case. Kirk Ross / Carolina Public Press

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RALEIGH — Although the political geography of more than half of the the state could shift under a new redistricting plan, district lines in the western region seem likely to remain as they are.

Federal courts found 19 North Carolina House of Representatives districts to be unconstitutional. The closest ones to the west are in and around Charlotte. Of the nine state Senate districts ruled unconstitutional, the closest are near Charlotte and Winston-Salem. Even contiguous districts for both do not reach far into western counties.

The key for any potential change to the existing districts in WNC is whether the current groupings of counties remain as they are under the new plans. Legislators designed the groupings to balance both federal voting rights requirements and the state constitution’s requirement that counties be kept whole in redistricting.

If the county groupings are changed, that could create a ripple effect that would alter district lines, most likely in some northern mountain counties.

Maps submitted to the court by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice based on groupings proposed by a consultant for the legislature shows that changing the county groupings could impact Senate districts for Burke, Avery, Watauga, Ashe Wilkes and Alleghany counties and House districts that include Alexander, Wilkes and Alleghany counties.

Both WNC Senators on the joint redistricting committee overseeing the process agree that unless the groupings change the lines in WNC will stay as they are.

In interviews after last week’s committee meeting, McDowell County Republican Rep. Ralph Hise, who co-chairs the committee and Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat, said it would be a significant step to expand the areas that would be affected by redistricting.

The extent of the areas affected is expected to be a major focus of the weeks ahead as the legislature sets criteria for new redistricting plans. It will also be one of the main areas reviewed by the court.

In last week’s hearing in Greensboro, attorney Phil Strach, who represents the legislative leadership, argued that one reason more time is needed to draw new maps is the need to review of the appropriateness of the current county groupings. Strach said it might be necessary to go back and optimize the groupings.

That brought a quick response from Judge James Wynn, who had pressed Strach for reasons for a longer process.

“We don’t need to determine that,” Wynn said. “We’re in the remedy phase now.”

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In a press conference after the Greensboro hearing, Anita Earls, lead attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said that last year Tom Hofeller, the consultant who drew the maps in 2011 and has been rehired by the legislature this year, submitted the clusters in an affidavit to the court as the groupings that must be used.

Now, she said, the General Assembly is considering going against its own consultant’s statement.

“What other conclusion can you draw other than that the legislature is trying to delay, delay and delay,” she said. “You have to acknowledge the testimony of our witnesses of the competitive advantage the Republicans have when they know what the districts look like and the Democrats don’t.”

At last week’s redistricting committee meeting co-chair Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said the groupings could remain the same, but that that Hofeller’s maps needed some additional review.

“This might very well be how the counties are grouped, but I have not personally reviewed it and the committee has not reviewed it to see if there is a different way to group the counties,” Lewis told the committee.

Hise said in an interview that he thinks a change to the groupings would only happen if there was “driving force” to do so. Overall, he said, it is important for the legislature to take a comprehensive approach to the new districts with ample public input.

Last week, Hise and Lewis set a timeline that included a series of statewide public hearings and new maps in November. That timeline changed with Monday’s court order requiring the General Assembly to produce new maps for court review by September 1 and to file information on criteria to be used by August 21. The court allowed for a possible two-week extension.

On Friday, Hise and Lewis will reconvene the redistricting committee and begin taking public comment on the criteria for redistricting.

The committee has also set up an online comment page at http://www.ncleg.net/applications/rfc/Redistricting.aspx?id=23

Other ripples

While the geography of WNC may prevent the ripple effect of redistricting from shifting district lines in the western region, some kind of political shift from redistricting is coming.

Democrats have long looked to legal redistricting challenges to right what they say is an unfair advantage seized by Republicans in the 2011 plans.

Once the rulings came down in the case in 2016, Democrats began questioning not just the legitimacy of the districts, but the legislature itself, to ratchet up the pressure for redrawing the maps.

The federal court rulings, including this year’s Supreme Court decision, have been regularly cited in Governor Roy Cooper’s rhetorical and legal challenges to legislative actions and is now being used in a Democratic fundraising effort to flip the legislature in 2018.

Democrats are hopeful that with new maps they can at least break the veto-roof supermajorities in one or both chambers, giving Cooper more leverage going forward.

But they are also wary of what Hofeller can do.

“The reason political gerrymandering is so dangerous these days is because of the technology available to people like Dr. Hofeller,” Van Duyn said in an interview last week. She expects “big data” to play a roll in this new round of redistricting and that’s one reason expanding the areas being redrawn is a concern.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College who tracks voting trends in North Carolina, said given what happened last year after the congressional maps were redrawn last year, the political effect of this year’s redistricting may not play out the way Democrats hope.

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The congressional maps, redrawn after two districts were found to be the result of racial gerrymandering, yielded new districts, but the same electoral result.

“The greater likelihood is confirmation of the Republican numbers,” Bitzer said. “Remember that at this point in time partisan gerrymandering is still constitutional. So what I think the Republicans will do, much like what they with the congressional maps, is say, ‘all right, we are going to de-emphasize race, but we are going to draw these maps based on partisanship’ and that, at this point, is still legal and constitutional.”

That, too, could change depending on how the Supreme Court rules this fall in a Wisconsin case challenging partisan gerrymandering.

A ruling against “hyper-partisan redistricting”, Bitzer said, “would throw all maps up in the air.”

For now, he said, the legislature will press on. One advantage for Republicans, he said, is that they will be using the 2010 census numbers to draw the districts.

Bitzer said he agrees it is unlikely the areas redrawn will be greatly expanded this year, but he sees an opportunity for the GOP to set the stage for the next round of redistricting in 2021.

“If Republicans can utilize this round to cement their partisan lock on these districts, they’re primed then for 2020 and retaining the legislature and buying another insurance policy for another decade.”

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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