The impact of redistricting on N.C. legislative seats
By Michael Bitzer
Second in a two-part series As I noted in Tuesday’s op-ed, a leading scholar describes redistricting as the “most political activity in American politics.” It receives this dubious label because those who get to draw the lines have the power to benefit their political party. The just-approved legislative and congressional maps have been described, by GOP leaders, as “fair and legal.” While I will leave those characteristics to the judgment of partisans and the courts, it is interesting to see the potential fundamental political shifts that could occur under these new lines. In looking at these new maps for the N.C. House and Senate, I used the approach that Charlie Cook, a respected independent analyst, uses to determine the competitiveness of U.S. House districts. For example, let’s say there is a district that, in 2004 and 2008, votes for the Republican presidential candidate 20 points over what that Republican garnered statewide. That district would most likely, in today’s political environment, elect Republicans down the rest of the ballot. While there are some “split ticket” districts, where voters cast their ballots for a presidential candidate of one party and switch to the other party for Congress, this phenomenon is becoming rare. Using the presidential returns of 2004 and 2008 in the new districts and comparing them to the statewide average of both parties’ presidential candidates, I arrived at a Partisan Voting Index (or PVI) for each of the new legislative districts. While this may not be the best indicator, it does give us an idea of how districts may tend to vote at the top of the ballot and allow some classification of these new districts. As Charlie Cook does, I divided the districts into five groups, based on their PVI: “likely” or “lean” GOP or Democratic, and “toss-up.” Where GOP gains For the new N.C. House districts, 66 districts would be considered “likely” for one party over the other: 36 for the Republicans, with 30 for the Democrats. The most Republican districts would be the proposed 73 and 78 (both at R+20, meaning the Republican presidential candidate won these districts by 20 points over his statewide average), while the most Democratic district appears to be the proposed 29th district in Durham, with a Democratic PVI of +37 points. So both parties in the House start off with a solid foundation of what appears to be “safe seats,” but it is in the “lean” categories that the GOP makes substantial headway to a majority: 37 seats appear to lean Republican, while only six appear to lean Democratic. What is more important is the fact that within both likely and lean GOP districts, eleven of them are currently held by Democratic incumbents, with five of them being coveted open seats. More on that later. The bottom line in the N.C. House: if Republicans only win those seats that likely or lean their way, they would have 73 seats out of the 120 seats available, twelve above what is needed for control ofthe chamber. In a possible sign that North Carolina is reflecting national political trends, less than 10 percent of the House districts could be considered competitive “toss-ups”: 11 out of 120 seats. The shrinking pool of truly competitive districts is alarming to many scholars who study electoral politics; some believe that this accounts for our current political polarization. Districts where the winners gain over 55 percent of the vote usually don’t have to listen to the minority party, but swing districts often create candidates who have to appeal to a wider rangeof the political spectrum. Effect in Rowan For example, in Rowan County, the 77th District was seen as one of the most competitive districts in the state — the close election of 2010, and even elections before that, indicated the swing nature of the district. But now, the 77th (currently held by Republican Harry Warren) could be identified as one of the likely Republican seats — the reason why is that the GOP wants to protect its own, particularly vulnerable freshmen members. Although the redrawn 76th District (currently held by Republican Fred Steen) gains some Democratic voters, it still falls into the likely GOP category, too. Out of the 50 seats in the N.C. Senate, it appears that at least 28 districts would be considered likely for one party or the other: 14 districts for Democrats and Republicans each (the latter including the 34th District seat held by Andrew Brock). The most Democratic district in the state would be the 28th, with a D+31 PVI, while the most Republican districts would be the 29th and 30th, both with R+15 PVIs. But again, as in the N.C. House, the Republicans appear to have a firm advantage when it comes to “lean” districts: 17 seats appear to lean Republican, while only two lean Democratic. Within the 17 “lean GOP” seats, four are currently held by Democrats, with one being an open seat. Among those competitive/”toss-up” seats, the N.C. Senate mirrors the House: less than 10 percent (three seats) appear to be competitive between the two parties. Regarding open seats: Republicans have several chances to pick up lean districts in their column, because the lines were drawn in these new districts without an incumbent current representingthe new district. Open seats are much more likely to be hard fought and easier for a party to pick off, particularly if the district has a tendency to vote for that party. An interesting point about N.C. Senate District 34: Rowan County is the largest “player” in that district, with 55 percent of the district’s population living in Rowan. Having the opportunity to draw district lines equates to writing the rules of the game: Here’s where we’ll play, here’s where you’ll play, and we can tell who will win this game next year. While many will object to this idea, it is what it is: politics, in its purest form, as a battle over governing power. • • • Dr. Michael Bitzer is an associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, and blogs at nc-politics.blogspot.com. You can read the first part of this series on redistricting in the Opinion section at www.salisburypost.com.