Michael Bitzer: New congressional district — wow

Published 2:08 pm Sunday, February 21, 2016

With the release of the “contingent” congressional district maps by the Republicans, my immediate reaction upon seeing the map was an emphatic “wow.” There were some very dramatic changes to at least 11 of the 13 districts, and the effects of such a change will be significant in this hyper-partisan election year.

The revisions come thanks to a three-judge federal panel that struck down the current maps as unconstitutionally drawn, based primarily on the fact that the Republican legislature in 2011 drew two districts — the 1st and 12th — based on the principle of setting the black voting age population at 50 percent plus one. In contending that these districts were drawn with race as the primary factor, the judges declared the districts unconstitutional and gave the state a two-week deadline to redraw the maps.

While the state has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the court order and let the current maps and March 15 primary move ahead, the legislature began the process of complying with the court order by establishing a set of principles in redrawing the maps, most notably, keeping the partisan 10-3 advantage to the Republicans and addressing the serpentine 12th District, which snakes along I-85 from Charlotte to Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

In seeking to address the issue of compactness and following a state constitutional principle of keeping counties whole, the map reflects these two principles, which lead to the significant changes. The 12th District now resides completely within Mecklenburg County, taking in most of Charlotte with the exception of the southern GOP wedge that is now placed in the 9th Congressional District, which extends from Charlotte’s SouthPark Mall to Fayetteville, nearly 130 miles away.

Another dramatic change is the 13th District’s shift from northeast of Raleigh to around Rowan County, another 130-mile shift from the current map to the contingent map. U.S. Rep. George Holding, the current incumbent of the 13th, will face the same dilemma that U.S. Rep. Alma Adams will face: learning about a new district and introducing themselves to a whole new set of constituents and voters.

There is no requirement that a congressional representative physically live in the district they are representing, but from a political perspective, the lack of residency may play to an opponent’s advantage, particularly one who does reside in the new district.

Where we may see this play out is in the first election test of these districts, the primaries, which could be sometime in June, based on the needs to print ballots and a federal law for voters who live overseas. For the new 12th, Rep. Adams may face a challenge from a local Charlotte/Mecklenburg Democrat; in the 2014’s primary election for the 12th, Adams faced six other Democrats with three major candidates from Mecklenburg County.

For Holding, the new 13th District, stretching from Iredell through Rowan, Davie, and Davidson and ending in Guilford, may attract a local Republican to challenge him in this district.

For political analysts like myself, one of the key descriptors that I would look at for trying to understand the political behavior of a new district is the presidential results within that redrawn district. But the Republicans decided not to use those results in creating the districts.

Some observers have already mapped the presidential results to the new districts, and we find some of the GOP districts have become less Republican, but the advantage should still fall to the GOP.

If the assumption that a competitive election has results that range in the 45-55 range, then the potential 2012 presidential election results in the districts show only the new 13th District would be competitive, with the other 12 districts showing a 55 percent or greater for one party over the other. The current three Democratic districts retain their strong Democratic leanings, even with the 12th District’s shift to Mecklenburg (thanks to the Charlotte-centric dominance) and the 4th District’s relocation back into Orange and Wake counties.

As far as the racial composition of challenged districts, both the 1st and the 12th appear to have a black population of below 50 percent, but the likelihood is that these districts will continue to elect a black Democratic representative from these districts.

Of course, all of this may be just an exercise if the U.S. Supreme Court steps in and issues the stay the state has requested, and allows the current maps to be used for the March 15 primary election. But what these contingent maps do show is that, at least at first glance, the coherency of congressional districts can be drawn to make more sense to the average voter, even with a district stretching from SouthPark Mall to Fayetteville.