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Josh Bergeron: Lines change, party representation won’t if new maps pass muster

When legislators were ordered by a state court to redraw district lines for the state House and Senate, the result was maps that look unlikely to change much around Rowan County.

Faces may change and district lines may shift, but Rowan County voters will most likely be represented by Republicans for years to come, barring a moderate-to-conservative Democratic candidate with a well-resourced campaign or a decision by courts to redraw maps themselves and alter the balance of power. That’s because Rowan is a deep red county, with Salisbury as a blue dot.

And the Associated Press reported last week that the new legislative districts won’t necessarily shift the balance of power to Democrats statewide. The House maps still have a partisan bias toward Republicans, according to an analysis by Michael Bitzer, Catawba College politics professor and department chair. That doesn’t mean Republicans will win a majority in 2020. When district lines cover an area that’s voted Republican for years, however, it’s hard to imagine that changing without a blue wave.

Consider Rep. Harry Warren’s redrawn 76th District as an example that partisan change is unlikely.

At present, Warren’s district starts on the west side of I-85 and stretches to the southeastern edge of the county. Now, depending on how the courts view maps approved last week, Warren will live in a district that’s centered around Salisbury.

It’s a “lean Republican” district, according to Bitzer’s analysis, with a predicted Democratic vote share of 41.5% and a predicted Republican vote share of 58.5%. That’s neither tailored to Warren nor a potential Democratic opponent, but it means he’ll have an advantage over just about anyone he faces.

And, adding to his changes, consider that Warren can credibly claim to working across the aisle more so than a number of his Republican colleagues. Some of his recent proposals are good examples (introducing bipartisan bills that would look to reduce the use of single-use plastic and creating a redistricting commission that takes the process out of legislators hands). At the same time, Warren consistently votes with Republicans on major policy matters.

Meanwhile, in Rowan’s and Davie’s 77th District, Rep. Julia Howard enjoys a large, 74%-26% advantage in predicted vote share, according to Bitzer’s analysis. Again, that percentage isn’t tailored to her, but it’s unlikely that a Democrat would be able to come close in a general election, much less pull off an upset.

A similar story is true in the 67th District, which moves into Rowan County under the latest legislature-approved proposal. That district is the home of Rep. Wayne Sasser, a Republican, from Stanly County. And his current district already includes parts of Stanly and Cabarrus.

In Rowan, the Senate maps leave Sen. Carl Ford’s 33rd District unchanged.

Rowan’s preference for Republicans in past elections is a particularly strong indicator that we’re likely to have Republican representatives for the foreseeable future, regardless of who draws maps. Even with the Democratic-leaning Salisbury, it’s hard to slice up a deep red county to Democrats’ advantage.

The county picked President Donald Trump in 2016 by a 66.5%-30.1% margin and chose other recent Republican presidential candidates with more than 60% of the vote, too.

Sure, Democrats hold and have recently held elected office in Rowan. If there’s an “R” next to someone’s name on the ballot in a general election, however, chances are they’ll wind up in office. That excludes races like the Salisbury City Council, where three incumbents are registered Democrats and two are Republicans. Municipal races, held in odd years, are nonpartisan.

The growth of Charlotte’s suburbs into Rowan County years into the future or an increased voter turnout from Salisbury Democrats could moderate a GOP advantage, but it wouldn’t remove it entirely.

For Rowan County, the story of the fast and furious redistricting in recent years (it seems to be an annual occurrence), is not one of shifting power. It’s only shifting lines, confusing voters about which district they live in and who their candidates are.

When legislators redraw maps after the 2020 census, it’s best that those maps stick. The best option to do that remains a nonpartisan commission or, at a minimum, a bipartisan commission of people who are not politicians, drawing maps without consideration for party, race or where incumbents live.

If it’s hard for journalists paid to report on politics to keep up with redistricting, it’s certainly not easy for voters.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. Contact him at josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

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