“Both parties do this,” says Chris Cooper, director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University. According to Cooper, there is nothing new about the current redistricting wars going on in Raleigh. Every ten years the party in power gets to redraw district lines in the state based on the population data from the most recent Census. The new maps are always controversial. The party in power is always accused of partisan gerrymandering.
What can be done about it? Not much.
“Gerrymandering in and of itself is not illegal,” said Cooper. While there are some Constitutional rules in the Voting Rights Act that the electoral cartographers must abide by – populations of minority voters cannot be diluted – as long as they get roughly even populations in each district, they can draw the maps more or less as they like.
Don't believe him? Google “North Carolina's 12th Congressional District” and take a gander at that gerrymander, a solidly Democrat bastion since, well, forever.
The game, says Cooper, is to pack as many of your opponents into as few districts as possible. Those districts become solidly oppositional, but as a result your party has a better chance of winning more districts.
“Is it good for democracy? I don't really think that it is,” Cooper remarked. “But it is certainly not illegal, and it's certainly not a Republican-only problem.”
In last year's elections, the North Carolina GOP won majority control of both houses of the General Assembly for their first time in over a century. One of the spoils of victory from that win is that they get to draw the maps this time. And they are not going to waste the opportunity.
Two weeks ago the redistricting committee released it's new Congressional maps. On Tuesday, it released maps for the state's House and Senate districts. The outcry of Democrats calling foul has been predictable. Republicans, on the other hand, are lauding the maps as “fair” and, what's more, legit.
“Our primary goal is to propose maps that will survive any possible legal challenge,” said Senator Bob Rucho in a statement on Tuesday after the release of the N.C. Senate and House maps.
According to Rucho every proposed district has been constructed so that it is within plus or minus five percent of the ideal population for state districts: 190,710 for the Senate and 79,462 for the House.
After some pencil and eraser work, Rucho claims that the new maps will also withstand any challenges of the Voter Rights Act. Twenty-three House districts have a majority black voting age population – two more have black voting age populations over 40 percent, which, says Rucho, will continue to “provide black voters with a substantially proportional and equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.”
Whether or not others agree will be seen in the upcoming hearings on the maps. To be sure, there are already challenges being leveled against the earlier Congressional map for the U.S. House of Representatives. The day it was released, the NAACP issued a press release claiming the map “packed” African-American voters and diluted voting power in VRA Section 5 counties.
“The ultra-conservative, right-wing Republican leadership cannot use this map to claim they are concerned about African-American and minority political power and upholding civil rights,” Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP, was quoted as saying. “Once again the extremists in the General Assembly have used their power to continue a frontal attack on civil rights and voting rights.”
Time will tell if the maps are immune to legal challenges or not. It could take years in the courts to find out.
This process is not unique to North Carolina. Across the country, from Wisconsin to Texas, similar battles are being waged. Some states utilize independent redistricting commissions to draw the maps, theoretically creating a more fair system, but those states have their redistricting struggles too. Someone has to appoint the members of those commissions.
Big shifts in WNC
Western North Carolina is no exception to the redistricting game – in fact, it may be a model for what is being proposed around the state.
The Congressional map that has been proposed all but removes Asheville from the 11th District currently held by Rep. Heath Shuler. The new voter calculus almost guarantees that even a conservative Democrat like Shuler will be defeated in the next election.
"This is the partisan and politically gerrymandered map we expected,” said Shuler staffer Andrew Whalen. “It does nothing to move our nation forward, but rather continues to divide us.”
Shuler claims he will run for re-election in 2012 and that he is not going to take an opening for athletic director of the University of Tennessee. Meanwhile, Dr. Dan Eichmann, who was defeated in last year's Republican primary, has already announced his intention to run again.
According to Cooper, the new map represents a big shift in the political landscape. District 11 will go from the fifth most Republican district in the state to the most Republican district in the state, as measured by McCain voting patterns in the last Presidential election.
Liberal Asheville will become part of the 10th Congressional District, which stretches all the way from Gastonia in the Piedmont, a solidly Republican district for two decades. This stretch seemingly ignores the principal of “community of interest.” Cooper points out, however, that voters from Murphy probably feel as different from voters in east Asheville as Asheville does from Gastonia.
“This is clearly a strategic remapping,” Cooper said, noting that statewide the five districts that moved the most Republican are the districts of the four most vulnerable Democrats and the most vulnerable Republican.
On the state level, there are some significant changes, but the implications are not quite as clear.
On the Senate map, the 50th District, represented by Sen. Jim Davis, once again consolidates all seven counties of Western North Carolina with no counties divided. Transylvania County will no longer be included, but all of Haywood County is.
The 49th District currently held by Sen. Martin Nesbitt will grow to encompass most of Buncombe County, diluting the Democratic majority there.
On the House map, the 120th District, represented by Rep. Roger West, now encompasses all of Macon County.
Rep. Phil Haire's 119th District, still includes Jackson and Swain counties, but adds about 22,000 people in Haywood County. The district lost the northeast corner of Macon County, but gained the town of Waynesville and surrounding areas.
The 118th District, takes the remainder of Haywood, Madison and Yancey.
Rep. Haire, a Democrat, says he is actually optimistic about many of the changes. He is particularly glad to see that of eight counties in the region, the House map only divides one county between two districts, his and District 118.
Rep. Phil Haire's 119th District remains strongly Democrat (46.84 percent), but the Democrats believe neighboring 118th District currently held by Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Mars Hill) could be more competitive with its 31.31 percent registerd Republicans combined with 22.77 percent unaffiliated voters.
On the other hand, Haire says he is more skeptical of the proposed Buncombe County districts. The districts of two incumbents – Rep. Susan Fisher and Rep. Patsy Keever, both Democrats – are to be combined.
On the Senate level, Haire notes that no counties have been divided in an area which he identifies as a strong community of interest. District 50 has long been the site of hotly contested races. Davis ran one of the closest races in the state last year to capture the district from incumbent Democrat John Snow.
Though some are arguing the opposite, Haire said he believes the 50th District will remain a dynamic and interesting voting district, one that will not necessarily guarantee a Republican victory. “I think it could go either way, as it does now,” Haire said.