Redistricting: It's about numbers … and a whole lot more
By Michael Bitzer
First of a two-part series
I often start my classes with the question, “what is politics?” And after hearing some ideas from students, I describe my view: that of politics being a game — a game about power. As one political scientist has described it, redistricting is the most political activity in the United States, and helps define who will possess political power.
With the North Carolina General Assembly voting this week on new redistricting maps that will redraw the lines, it’s important to understand how this part of the game is played — because it will determine many of the winners and losers in the next decade.
Every 10 years, the United States conducts a population count, through the census. Using that information, we see where population shifts have occurred (typically in urban and suburban areas, with rural areas seeing lower growth rates or even losses). As of last year, North Carolina had a census population of a little over 9.5 million people.
Redistricting places those 9.5 million into areas for representation in the 170-member North Carolina legislature and the 13 members of the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. Before the district lines for the legislators can be drawn, though, we must deal with a number of conditions.
Redistricting starts with the fundamental principle of “one person, one vote.” Based on the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, states must draw their districts so that they are approximately equal in population. So, the ideal populations for the state’s congressional districts would be 733,499, while the state House districts would have 79,462 and state Senate districts would have 190,710 residents.
When redrawing districts, North Carolina must adhere to both federal and state court rulings requiring congressional districts to have no deviation in population, while state legislative districts can deviate — meaning that state House and Senate districts can vary within 5 percent of the ideal populations.
Next comes the most important question: So who gets to draw these districts? Well, welcome to the world of politics. The first thing to know is that elections have consequences — and the elections having the greatest consequences are those that end in a zero — a census year.
In a majority of the states, the legislators who represent these districts often get to draw their new district lines, with the help of staff who use computer programs, specifically geographic information systems, to slice and dice the state into districts. In North Carolina, it is the members of the General Assembly, specifically the Republican majority, who get to draw the lines — the governor has no say and no veto power over the proposed maps. But before the lines start to take shape, another set of conditions must be met: the requirements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Based on the legacy of Jim Crow laws and the use of segregation, the 1965 law protects the political rights of minorities. What this means is that whenever a state changes a voting condition, it must not have a discriminatory effect on minorities.
A key component of the 1965 law is Section 2, which the courts have interpreted as identifying when discrimination occurs through a three-part test: when there exists a minority group sufficiently large and geographically compact to be a majority in a district with a single official, that the minority group is “politically cohesive,” and whose preferred candidate is usually defeated by white majority voting together. The first part of the test was later refined to mean 50 percent or more of the voting age population.
Another section of the 1965 law requires that states with a history of restricting the right to vote or register must have changes “precleared” or approved by the federal government, either by the Department of Justice or a district court in D.C. Forty N.C. counties are covered by Section 5, meaning that whenever changes are made to these counties, the federal government must sign off on the changes.
All of this means that the issue of race is still a critical component in American politics, and especially here in North Carolina. While consideration of minorities must be taken into account — thus leading to the 1990s creation of the 12th Congressional District that Rowan County is part of — the U.S. Supreme Court has held that when race impermissibly dominates the redistricting process (by ignoring compactness or disregarding communities of interest), the districts could be open to lawsuits challenging them. Needless to say, abiding by “considering minorities” while not “impermissibly considering” race is a daunting task.
Next, based on a state Supreme Court decision, the Legislature must draw districts that reflect the “whole county” provision of the state Constitution; meaning, that when redrawing the lines, districts should contain whole counties and “communities of interest” in creating compact and bordering, or contigious, districts.
The final condition of redrawing legislative lines is, for many Americans, probably the most controversial, and that is political affiliation. Because North Carolina requires voters to declare a political party affiliation (Democrat, Republican, Unaffiliated or Libertarian), along with collecting voting results in precincts, the designers of new districts can pursue several different goals: benefit their political party, impair the opposition, protect incumbents, or some combination of them.
This can be done in a number of ways: packing members of the opposition into one district, thereby removing them from surrounding districts and strengthening their own party’s chances of election; conversely, cracking the opposition by dividing them into several districts, thus diluting their chance to elect one of their own; and finally gerrymandering, or drawing of such an odd-shaped district with the intent of electing one party over another.
With these new “rules of the game” being debated this week, redistricting will have a profound impact on Tar Heel politics for the next decade, and will inevitably reshape the political landscape over the next few election cycles. More on that in a subsequent article.
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Dr. Michael Bitzer is an associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, and blogs at nc-politics.blogspot.com.