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Every state in the country is redrawing political maps based on new data from the 2020 census, and many eyes across the nation are focused on North Carolina.
The Tarheel State has been a hot spot for legal fights over political maps since the 1990s, battles that have accelerated since 2011, when Republicans took control of the state legislature and used that newfound power to draw new political maps from the 2010 census in their own favor.
Unlike previous gerrymandering efforts, maps drawn over the last decade applied sophisticated software to narrowly tailor districts to give maximum advantage to the party in power.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled these maps were unconstitutional because they racially gerrymandered, meaning the maps were drawn in a way to give Black people less political power. The legislature, overseen by federal courts, redrew those maps in 2016, but these again faced a legal challenge.
In 2019, state courts ruled those maps to be unlawful, “hyperpartisan” political gerrymanders under the state constitution and forced the legislature to try yet again for the 2020 elections. The legislature will follow the same rules for transparency in this year’s redistricting process that the state courts required in the last round of redrawing.
Redistricting will dominate the news and political discourse for months to come. In this FAQ, we cover the basics you need to know to follow along and participate in the process.
What is redistricting?
Redistricting is the process of redrawing political maps based on the census data collected every 10 years by the federal government.
The Census Bureau decides how many U.S. House seats each state will have based on its population, an idea called apportionment that is required by the U.S. Constitution. State legislatures then take that data from the Census Bureau and use it to recalibrate political boundaries so that roughly every person in the U.S. has the same amount of political power in the U.S. House of Representatives.
State legislatures use the same concept to draw political boundaries within the state, too, so that each state House district holds the same number of people and each Senate district does the same.
Redistricting can also occur in between censuses if ordered by the courts, but they must still base their new maps on the most recent census.
This kind of political divvying-up can extend to the local level. Local governments, including school boards, city or county commissioners, can be elected by district or “at large.” If it’s by district, those districts need to be modified every 10 years to adjust for population change. At-large elections do not require districts, because every voter in an area — a county, for example — gets to vote in that election.
Some North Carolina local governments have “representation districts” in which a candidate for office must live but will be elected at large. Depending on the local rules, these districts may also need to be drawn according to population initially or following an annexation, and may also need to be updated after each Census.
Why is redistricting so contentious?
In a cynic’s view, redistricting is an opportunity for legislators to pick the people who elect them. For people or political parties trying to stay in power, this is helpful.
For people or political parties with fewer seats in the state legislature, redistricting is seen as potentially dangerous, as unfavorable maps could lock them out of power for another 10 years.
Politicians and political parties want maps where likely Democratic or Republican voters are divided up in ways to give themselves, or their parties, a better chance at winning elections.
When will redistricting start?
It has already begun. The census released the data that legislators need to redistrict on Aug. 12.
The joint N.C. House and Senate committees on redistricting met and set guidelines for the rules they would use to draw the maps.
Legislative staffs are working on taking the data from the census and putting it into a format that legislators and the public can use to draw maps. Legislators expect that data to be available in early September.
When will it be over?
The pandemic delayed the collection and release of census data by five months. Because the legislature did not also decide to delay 2022 elections, this has created a truncated timeline for finishing the redistricting process.
The N.C. State Board of Elections, which is tasked with running elections using the maps the legislature creates, said it needs maps no later than the end of October to be ready in time for the December candidate filing deadlines. The legislature will likely respect that deadline with a week or two of latitude.
If anybody doesn’t like the maps and sues, redistricting could go on for years. State courts forced the North Carolina legislature to redraw maps in 2019, showing that the fight over maps could drag on until the next round of maps is drawn from the 2030 census.
What are North Carolina’s rules for redistricting?
The legislature adopted its map-drawing rules on Aug. 12. The legislature will not use either racial data or political data in drawing its maps. In 2016 and in 2019, federal and state courts, respectively, dismissed North Carolina’s maps for racial and overly political gerrymandering.
Legislators will also attempt to follow county boundaries, with some relatively minor exceptions. That will prevent oddly shaped districts like the famous District 12, which for years looked like tributaries in a river flowing through Black communities across six counties, from the Y-shape that connected Guilford and Forsyth down to Mecklenburg.
What if I want to draw a map?
You can! The legislature operates public redistricting terminals that anyone can sign up to use. All the maps either the public or legislators create on the terminal will be part of the public record.
If you are interested in participating in the process, the nonprofit and nonpartisan NC Counts Coalition created a resource-rich guide to learn about redistricting and to share public comments with the legislature.
What if the maps legislators draw are unfair?
If you are a North Carolina voter, you can probably file a lawsuit, but legal challenges are very expensive. Some people who object to maps connect with an advocacy group that shares their interests. If you think the maps are unfair, lots of big interest groups likely do, too.
Should we expect lawsuits?
Redistricting is controlled by the legislature, and the legislature has been controlled by Republicans since 2010. Several rounds of lawsuits over redistricting in North Carolina have come from left-leaning and Democratic groups.
Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general under Barack Obama, is now the head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. He signaled back in February that the group is keeping a close eye on North Carolina.
Over the last decade, North Carolina’s League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the state chapter of the NAACP have sued North Carolina over the maps the legislature drew in 2011, then again in 2016 after federal courts forced them to try again.
In North Carolina, the governor does not have any say over political maps, meaning that the courts can provide the only check on the legislature’s map-making.