After public hearings, NC remapping work begins this week

Published 11:55 pm Tuesday, October 5, 2021

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH — Back in Raleigh after over a dozen redistricting public hearings last month, the General Assembly is ready to begin drawing new boundaries for the North Carolina legislature and the state’s U.S. House delegation for the next decade.

The House and Senate remapping committee leaders said Tuesday that lawmakers could begin drawing boundaries Wednesday in committee rooms that will be open to the public, with activity and maps drawn by computer streamed online. It’ll likely be at least two weeks before plans are debated and voted upon, giving members time to experiment and build consensus with colleagues.

While a 2019 court ruling mandated a more open mapmaking process that year, it wasn’t required going forward.

“We are taking the unprecedented step of being as transparent as I believe we possibly can,” said Rep. Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican and House Redistricting Committee chairman. Only maps drawn in the committee rooms will be accepted.

Like other states, North Carolina is redrawing House and Senate boundaries and those for Congress based on 2020 census figures released earlier this year. Unless judges declare otherwise, the lines approved by the full House and Senate would be used starting with next year’s elections through 2030. Candidate filing for next year begins in December, so approved lines are needed several weeks beforehand.

Population changes since 2010 mean areas around Charlotte and Raleigh will benefit from increased representation at the expense of rural areas where population has leveled. And North Carolina’s overall population growth soared enough for the state to earn a 14th congressional seat.

The committees already decided upon the criteria that must be used to draw maps before the hearings began in early September. Many such rules are based on a mosaic of federal and state court rulings over the decades and that Republican leaders say are designed to comply with constitutions and the federal Voting Rights Act. Some include ensuring districts within the same statewide map are equal in population, aiming to keep districts compact and considering where current lawmakers live.

But GOP committee members agreed that data identifying the race of individuals or voters and partisan information such as election results can’t be used in drawing boundaries. This is largely a response to court rulings during the 2010s that declared lawmakers conducted both racial and partisan gerrymandering during the last redistricting cycle. Those rulings led to the editing of maps.

Still, with Republicans in charge of both chambers and redistricting legislation not subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes, the GOP is expected to be politically no worse off, if not in a better situation, with new plans. Litigation challenging any enacted maps, however, is extremely likely.

On Tuesday, each committee reviewed the groupings of counties that outside experts calculated so state House and Senate maps comply with a state Constitution requirement to minimize the number of districts that cross county lines. But some “county clusters” in areas of the state that will comprise roughly a dozen House and Senate districts aren’t yet set in stone under these proposals.

Legislative Democrats questioned why race-based statistics aren’t being provided to ensure that Black voting-age residents are no worse off in being able to elect their favored candidates. Exceptions to the county cluster rules are permitted in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act, but the county groupings discussed Tuesday don’t contain such adjustments.

“How can we comply with federal law and and all this without looking at any racial data?” Democratic Sen. Wiley Nickel of Wake County asked.

Sen. Ralph Hise, co-chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, said there are no plans to commission a formal study of whether voting is racially polarized in North Carolina — a potential prerequisite to make boundary changes based on race. That’s because judges told lawmakers in the 2010s that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for such polarization, he said.

“We believe that constitutionally compliant maps can be presented under the Voting Rights Act under these county clusters,” said Hise, a Mitchell County Republican. But Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County warned that lawmakers are setting themselves up for more litigation that strikes down boundaries by avoiding sufficient analysis based on race.