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With newly minted state legislative maps submitted for judicial review, it’s anyone’s guess on whether the court will accept, reject or otherwise modify the new districts the General Assembly passed this week.

The special three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court reviewing the plans is expected to act quickly after consulting with Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor and redistricting expert appointed to analyze the maps and be available to draw new ones should the court reject some or all of the legislature’s work.

Persily served as a special master and drew new districts in a prior North Carolina redistricting case.

The new plans passed each chamber after legislators conducted the typically secretive redistricting process in a court-ordered open hearing.

Both House and Senate redistricting committees live-streamed their respective hearings, including individual feeds of the computer screens at each mapmaking station. No work was permitted to be conducted outside of the open hearings, as per the court order.

The work drew bipartisan praise for its unprecedented openness but also criticism for the base maps used to start the process and limitations on public comments ahead of map drawing.

With the court allowing some leeway in its instructions for the legislature to take incumbency into consideration, nearly all of the districts ordered redrawn were reviewed and in some cases adjusted by members of local delegations.

Only the Buncombe County delegation opted to have its maps drawn exclusively by the legislative staff.

Despite the input, support for the maps was mixed in the final votes. Although the Senate voted 38-9 for its own plan, the rest of the votes in both House and Senate were more closely divided along party lines.

After approval, legislative leaders, who had opted not to appeal the ruling, called the process a model of transparency and urged the courts to swiftly approve the maps.

“Every effort has been made to create fair, nonpartisan, and court-compliant districts,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham said in a statement.

“We urge the court to accept these districts so we can finally put this long battle behind us.”

In urging a yes vote on Senate maps, Senate minority leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, also praised the process, but some members of his caucus said they couldn’t vote for the outcome and questioned using maps produced during the court case rather than starting fresh.

NC Senate Democratic and Republican leaders gather for a last-minute huddle before a final vote on the state House maps on Tuesday. Kirk Ross / Carolina Public Press

Criticism of partisanship in maps

Some legislative Democrats voted against the maps, citing objections to giving incumbents a hand in the process at all, calling for a nonpartisan commission to draw the lines in the future.

The reaction from Common Cause, lead plaintiff in the court case challenging the 2017 maps, praised the transparency of the process but called for a thorough review by the court.

“The court’s ruling against partisan gerrymandering was a historic victory for the people of North Carolina, setting a clear requirement for drawing districts completely free from partisan politics and with total transparency,” said Brent Laurenz, deputy director of Common Cause North Carolina, in a statement released Tuesday after the final votes.

“We look forward to the next steps in this ongoing remedial process, which includes the court thoroughly reviewing the new districts to ensure that they fully comply with the ruling.”

Although legislators were forbidden by the court to use any analysis showing the likely partisan outcome of new districts, several electoral experts have dug into the numbers, plugging in voting patterns from past elections.

In an analysis conducted by PlanScore, a nonpartisan review organization, and published Tuesday in Election Law Blog, University of Chicago law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos said both the House and Senate maps appear skewed toward GOP candidates but less than the plans they replaced.

For each chamber, he wrote, “The new map is approximately one-third as skewed as the old plan.”

Using past election year turnout percentages, Stephanopoulos wrote that the remedial plans show about 49 Democratic seats in the 120-member House and 22 Democratic seats in the 50-member Senate.

Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science and history at Catawba College, said it’s important to remember that showing how districts might vote under a given turnout doesn’t necessarily translate to election outcomes. That makes the court’s job of deciding what is overly partisan and what’s acceptable even more complicated.

What the court might do with maps

Bitzer, who released his own analysis of the new maps this week as well, said in its initial ruling that the court clearly decided that the prior maps were too partisan. The next step could be where the justices spell out what that means.

“The question becomes: Where’s the line, what is acceptable and what isn’t?” he said.

The court could push back on some aspects of how the House and Senate went about the redraw, but Bitzer said he does not expect the judges to completely throw out the legislature’s work.

Still, since the court limited the redraw to only certain parts of the state and not all districts, any remedy is going to eventually run into the state’s rapidly shifting political geography, Bitzer said.

The redraw involved 14 county groupings for the House and seven for the Senate.

The state demographic shift should be much more evident in the 2021 redistricting that follows the next census when 10 years of declining populations in rural regions and rapid growth in large and midsize cities along the Interstate 85/ I-40 corridor will reshape districts in a much bigger way.

To view the maps

Proposed Senate map, link

Proposed House map, link


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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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