Senate Redistricting chair Ralph Hise during final floor debate in 2017. Kirk Ross / Carolina Public Press

It’s redistricting time.

Legislative staffers are expected this week to release the census data, put into a format that legislators and the public can use to draw political maps. 

North Carolina legislators will spend the next month drawing proposed maps, which they tentatively plan to release Sept. 30. The General Assembly also has a proposed listening tour for public input that will run from Sept. 6-27. 

Members of the public can share their thoughts on redistricting at those meetings, by submitting comments online or at a proposed second round of public hearings in October.

Voters can use the public redistricting terminal or online tools like DistrictR or Dave’s Redistricting Tool to draw their own maps, which they can submit for the legislature to consider. 

Political debates and redistricting news coverage will likely be the hottest between the end of September and the end of October, when the legislature needs to pick its final maps. 

This FAQ will help you draw your own maps, make effective public comments and make up your own mind about how our state’s political maps should be drawn. 

What is gerrymandering, and why should I care? 

Redistricting is the process of drawing political maps. Gerrymandering is the process of making the maps favor one political party or group over another, often restricting the voting power of certain groups of people. 

The more gerrymandered political maps are, the less they reflect the will of voters

What are the types of gerrymandering? 

The courts have ruled against two categories of gerrymandering: partisan and racial. 

Partisan gerrymandering is drawing legislative maps so one political party is more likely to win more elections. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that federal courts could not rule on political gerrymanders because, well, it was a political issue. 

North Carolina’s courts took a different approach, using the state’s constitution to protect from “hyperpartisan” gerrymanders. The state can still favor one political party over another, but it has to be within reason. 

Compare North Carolina’s redrawn maps in 2019, 2016 and 2011 using Princeton’s Redistricting Report Card. Republicans still have more of an edge than fairly drawn maps would suggest they should, but the disparity is less in the most recent maps, which the courts determined to be legal. 

Racial gerrymandering happens when racial minority voters are prevented from having adequate political representation, and it is prohibited by both state and federal constitutions. 

Which party is worse about gerrymandering? 

That depends on which state you are in and at what point in history you examine. The real answer is the party in power is worse because that is the party drawing the maps. 

In a potential solution to partisan power grabs, 15 states use redistricting commissions to draw political maps instead of legislatures. 

Unless the General Assembly decides to hand off its power to a commission by 2030, legislators will remain North Carolina’s mapmakers, though state and federal courts have repeatedly forced the state to redo its maps. 

The Democratic Party used gerrymandering to control the state legislature and congressional delegation from the turn of the 20th century to 2010. For most of that time, Democrats used mapmaking to curtail Black political power, too. 

By the 1990s, the Democratic Party was using gerrymandering to create Black-majority districts, but the U.S. Supreme Court threw those maps out because the political districts took such unusual shapes. 

Now, the tables are turned. 

In 2010, Republicans swept into power in state legislatures across the country. They used their new control in states like North Carolina to draw maps that heavily favored electing more Republicans to both state and federal government. 

Republicans still control 30 of 50 state legislatures and will again control drawing political maps across most of the country. They will be able to draw maps for the second decade in a row to give the party outsized control over state and federal law, even as Democrats consistently win larger shares of the national vote. 

Other factors are at play. For example, cities have the highest concentrations of Democrats and the highest concentration of voters anywhere, while our democracy elects most leaders based on widespread geographic popularity (see “proportionality” below). Other factors, like the structure of the U.S. Senate, have helped Republicans control more political power in recent years than their vote share would suggest. 

OK, I get the bigger picture. Now can you tell me the vocabulary I’ll need to know to understand how these maps work? 

The most common words you’re likely to hear are “cracked” and “packed.” These refer to the ways voters of one party or race are distributed to dilute their voting power. 

Cracking means taking pockets of like-minded voters and splitting them up among a lot of districts where they are outnumbered by opposing voters. 

Packing means cramming as many like-minded voters into as few districts as possible. 

The legislature has to draw districts for state and federal representatives that are relatively equal in population. When drawing a lot of districts, such as 120 districts for North Carolina’s state House, it’s an effective strategy to pack an opposing party’s voters into a few districts, then crack their remaining voters across the remaining districts, guaranteeing your party ongoing majority power. 

When these strategies are applied to minority racial populations — usually Black voters — it’s called “minority vote dilution.” 

As populations and political affiliations shift between censuses, the maps tend to lose the full strength of their gerrymander. That’s in part what happened in 2010, when Republicans won a majority of the state legislative seats, which was bolstered by a lot of voter engagement on their side of the political divide. 

What are some ways to combat “cracking” and “packing?” 

Legislators can now use computer algorithms to draw their maps, so preventing cracking and packing is all but impossible. But due to state court cases, North Carolina is following several rules that will help limit worst-case scenarios. 

In the past, gerrymandered maps have used oddly shaped districts to select for voters, famously District 12. Sprawling, cross-county zigzag districts are not allowed this year under North Carolina’s redistricting rules

The rules to help prevent oddly shaped districts are compactness, contiguity and preserving communities of interest and are largely based on state court requirements from the 2019 litigation preventing hyperpartisan gerrymanders. 

Republicans, who control the redistricting committees, passed the rules and declined to include a dozen proposed amendments from Democrats. 

Under North Carolina’s rules, the mapmaking committees “​​shall make reasonable efforts” to draw compact districts. Compactness is most easily understood as a shape that has a minimal distance between all its points, like all points on a circle being closer than the farthest points on a star. 

The legislature’s rule that it will keep districts within county groupings or, when a county has dense enough population, within a single county will help limit sprawling districts. Of course, this rule still allows likely Democratic voters in cities to be separated from likely Republican voters in suburban and rural areas still within the county limits. 

This is an effective tool for Republicans to draw seats they will likely control even in very pro-Democratic places like Wake or Buncombe counties.

If Democrats got to draw the maps, they could easily use the same rules to draw maps that would hand them more of the seats by dividing up the voters in slightly different combinations. 

The districts also need to be contiguous, meaning that all parts of a district have to touch some part of the rest of the district. Because Alaska does not touch any part of the “lower 48” states, it is not a contiguous part of the United States. 

The districts also cannot use “point contiguity,” which is where two sections of a district only meet at a small connection. Think of two triangles touching only at the tip. In the past, this has been used to combine groups of like-minded voters on opposite sides of a city, for example, while splitting opposing voters into smaller groups. 

In 2020, Democrats got 49.3% of the votes but won only 43% of the seats in the state House. Is this due to gerrymandering? 

In part, yes, but not entirely. The way the U.S. political representation system is built, legislators need to be elected from a lot of distinct geographic areas across the state (and country). This system favors political parties that have widespread support, geographically speaking. 

Republicans have an advantage because they have more support in rural areas than Democrats, and most of the area of the state is rural, even though more people live in urban and suburban areas. Democrats are concentrated in the urban areas, a trend that has only become more focused in the last decade. 

Unless voters are evenly distributed across the country, a gap will always exist between the percentage of votes won versus the percentage of seats won. 

Only countries that use proportional democracy line up the vote share with political representation. 

The same people keep winning elections over and over again. Is that even legal? 

Perfectly, at least so far. This is called “incumbent protection.” 

In the legislature’s rules, a legislator’s residence “may be considered in the formation of legislative and congressional districts.” 

That means that the legislature can protect some lawmakers by keeping them in friendly districts. The “may” part of the language means it’s up to the Republican-controlled redistricting committees to decide which legislators are kept in safe districts and which are put in competitive districts. 

During the Aug. 12 committee hearing discussing these rules, Democratic lawmakers raised concerns that the rule was vague and would be unfairly applied. 

A lot of seats are safe simply because there are large segments of the state where there are large majorities of Democratic or Republican lawmakers. This is the same population distribution problem seen in the question above. 

To see how safe seats are drawn, look to the suburbs, which are the transition points between heavily Democratic cities and heavily Republican rural areas.

What happens next?

The N.C. State Board of Elections has to take whatever maps the legislature passes and use them to prepare for candidates to file for 2022 primary elections, scheduled for March. The state and county boards of elections will need to tell candidates what seats they are eligible to run for. Then the boards will assign voters to precincts and make the ballots they’ll vote on. 

But all this could be disrupted by lawsuits, which would likely be filed shortly after the state’s maps are finalized near the end of October. North Carolina is expected to continue its rich history of lawsuits over unfair political maps, dating well back into the era of Democratic control of the legislature, before Republicans took control of both House and Senate in 2011. 

Over the last decade, North Carolina redrew its maps several times due to successful litigation challenging gerrymanders the Republican legislature created. The courts said they rejected several of these maps due to race-based gerrymandering and, in the final round of cases, “hyperpartisan” gerrymandering.

Given that a lot of the court precedents are settled now, lawsuits may not dominate as much of the coming decade. 

Even so, North Carolinians will continue to hear about “cracking,” “packing,” “contiguous districts” and “safe seats.” 

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.