Gerrymandering in North Carolina: How Has Technology Added Fuel to the Fire in NC?

Gerrymandering in North Carolina: How Has Technology Added Fuel to the Fire in NC?

The most recent fight over gerrymandering of North Carolina’s Congressional districts ended in December 2019. All it took was multiple lawsuits, years of several legal battles and a lottery machine.

Three Superior Court judges in Wake County gave the OK on the maps in place for the upcoming 2020 general election.

North Carolina News Daily already covered the history of gerrymandering in the state. Now, it’s time to examine the role technology played in this process in North Carolina and around the country.

Technology helped get NC party politics into this mess, and then, in an unexpected twist, helped get North Carolina out of it. It’s not all the way there, but it’s certainly more fair than it was prior to December 2019.

Anyway, here we go…

Gerrymandering Started Long Ago

North Carolina Gerrymandering over time.
Image courtesy of Furfur .
Own work,
based on data published by North Carolina Digital Collections.

Gerrymandering, as we talked about before, came about when a Massachusetts governor decided to pack supporters of the Democratic-Republic party into an oddly-shaped district around Boston.

But the process has kicked into high gear over the past 30 years, as technology caught up with political ambition.

The New York Times reported in 1989 that 10 companies were getting into the redistricting business. These firms created computer programs available for desktop machines, and the programs allowed any interested party to create their own political districts.

“If we’re not careful, we could end up with an electronic Tower of Babel,” Glenn Newkirk, an employee of the North Carolina General Assembly at the time, said in the story.

According to an October 2017 story from The Atlantic, the Caliper Corporation created the Geographic Information System (GIS) around 1990. This was also available for desktop machines.

Up to that point, districts were put together using pencils, erasers and maps. Caliper’s program, and its successor, GIS Plus, was able to process larger amounts of raw data from the most-recent U.S. Census.

Around 2000, Caliper released a GIS program that included a redistricting feature. Republicans jumped on this program, and they used it for more than redistricting. The party was able to organize and raise funds in those areas, so that it could flip state offices in swing states.

Gerrymandering Hits Overdrive

Image courtesy of M.boli / CC BY-SA.

All these technological developments culminated in the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Redistrcting Majority Project (REDMAP). This initiative targeted state legislatures and governors offices in swing states that could be flipped in the party’s favor. And it worked.

Republicans won six governors elections and more than 700 seats in state legislatures across the country. Most of those seats came in rural areas.

Data was available at micro levels following the 2010 elections. Legislators, staff members and consultants around the country could dig into the individual voting precincts, and they were able to figure out which blocks or homes would vote for certain parties.

The Dickson v. Rucho lawsuit alleged the N.C. General Assembly’s maps in 2011 split “563 of the state’s 2,692 precincts into more than 1,400 sections.” The lawsuit also says “residents in one-and-a-half blocks of a small neighborhood street will receive three different ballot styles” for the 2012 general election.

This precision targeting led to a huge shift in North Carolina’s delegation in the U.S. House. Following the 2010 elections, the state sent seven Democrats and six Republicans to the U.S. House. Just six years later, North Carolina sent 10 Republicans and three Democrats to the U.S. House.

An AP report in July 2017 analyzed the previous year’s Congressional and state legislature elections, showing that the Republicans had won more seats than correlated with their share of the votes counted.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project found North Carolina failed a gerrymandering test regarding the results of U.S. House elections. It was one of three states to fail that test. It was one of four states to fail the test for state House races.

In 2018, Republicans won 58% of the state Senate seats and 54% of the state House seats in the General Assembly, though the party received less than half the statewide vote.

Tech to the Rescue 

Computers and GIS software helped create this mess, but they also helped undo it.

An NPR story from September 2019 described an illustrative scene from the gerrymandering process. State Sen. Rick Horner (R-Wilson) and a staff member are at a computer drawing district lines. “It’s like a video game,” Horner says with enthusiasm.

“It’s sort of like a video game, but with a lot more consequences,” the staff member said with a laugh.

This is where Jowei Chen, an associate professor from the University of Michigan, comes in.

Chen has run simulations to find out if actual election results using districts drawn by politicians differ too much from expected outcomes using hundreds of different possible maps. This played a huge role in the redrawing of North Carolina’s state districts.

According to a September 2019 story from WRAL, Chen’s algorithm created two sets of 1,000 maps — one that didn’t account for incumbents’ addresses and one that did — for use during North Carolina’s court-mandated redistricting. 

The state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, decided to work from the second set when beginning its redistricting. Although, Chen said in a report to the court, the second set of maps could lead to more gerrymandering if Republican incumbents are seeking protection.

In short, those 1,000 maps were cut down to five possible contenders. And five lottery balls were placed into a machine to determine which map the Senate would use. Less than three months later, North Carolina had its 2020 court-approved Congressional districts.

For more election news, check out our coverage of the North Carolina elections. For more legal news, please visit our Law section.