How Does Gerrymandering Affect North Carolina Voters?

How Does Gerrymandering Affect North Carolina Voters?

The 2020 general election is a little more than two months from now. So, while we wait to exercise our right to vote, let’s look at an issue North Carolina voters frequently have heard over the years: gerrymandering.

In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly had to redraw the state’s congressional districts. A panel of three judges ruled that legislators had gerrymandered the maps in question based on race. Both Republicans and Democrats have used racial gerrymandering to gain a political advantage in North Carolina.

But let’s look at the basics of gerrymandering before we get look at its history in North Carolina.

What is Gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering occurs when a political party draws district lines to gain an unfair advantage over its counterpart. Lines for U.S. House districts are redrawn every 10 years following the national census.

Gerrymandering comes in when district lines are manipulated. That way, the districts’ representation does not accurately reflect the outcome of the statewide popular vote.

Here, the Washington Post explains it:

The practice dates back to the 1810s, to a man named Elbridge Gerry. Gerry was the governor of Massachusetts when the state legislature redrew the district lines for the state senate.

The idea behind the new districts was to box Federalist Party supporters into a few districts and give more representation to the Democratic-Republican Party. The Federalist districts’ outline was compared to the shape of a salamander. A subsequent political cartoon in the Boston Gazette introduced “The Gerry-mander” to its readers and added the term to the American lexicon.

North Carolina’s Gerrymandering History

The Fifteenth Amendment extended voting rights to Black men in America when it was ratified in 1870. Democrats in North Carolina responded by placing as many Republican-supporting Black voters as they could in the state’s second district.

Gerrymandering in North Carolina likely happened more in the past than today, because the state now only redraws district lines every 10 years. Dr. Michael Bitzer, a history and politics professor at Catawba College, said districts in the 1800s were redrawn when power changed hands in the General Assembly.

“My sense of things up to the Civil War was there was some coherence to change the lines when (a new party) came into power,” he said. “You saw it wasn’t every 10 years; it was whenever a party (gained) power, they would draw districts.”

The Second district, called the Black Second, became the first Black majority district in the state’s history. It went from Craven and Jones counties on the coast up to Warren and Northampton counties on the Virginia border. From 1874-98, four Black men represented the Second district in Congress. The 10 counties in the district also elected Black men to the General Assembly between 1868-98.

That’s good, right? Not exactly, given the larger context of the state.

A report from N.C. State University’s history department said the gerrymandering of the Black Second made “it nearly impossible for African American voters to elect a Republican anywhere else in the state.”

The Twelfth District also has a long history despite its short existence.

The Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush forced North Carolina to create the Twelfth district in 1991. The district came about because the Voting Rights Act of 1965 mandated the state have a second majority-minority district. The original WFAE report said the twelfth district became “a powerful symbol of racial politics in the state and the nation.”

Packing Black voters into the district benefited both parties. Bitzer said Democrats saw this as a chance to gain a seat in the House, and Republicans had an opportunity to strengthen their hold in surrounding districts. “It was, at the time, strange bedfellows,” Bitzer said.

The district originally followed Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Durham. It stretched across 10 counties, and it included areas surrounding Statesville, Salisbury, Thomasville, Winston-Salem, High Point, Greensboro, and Burlington. Republicans argued in Shaw vs. Reno that the district’s shape was a “partisan power grab” by Democrats. They added that majority-minority districts were more likely to vote for Democrats.

“The Supreme Court ultimately ruled the redistricting plan an illegal racial gerrymander not because it established majority-minority districts but because it did so with such a bizarrely shaped district,” the N.C. State report said.

Democrats represented eight of the state’s 12 districts after the 1992 election. Mel Watt was the first person to represent the Twelfth district in Congress. He resigned from the House in January 2014 to serve as the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The cities and towns east of Greensboro dropped from the district’s boundaries, but the district still traveled up I-85 from Charlotte to areas of the Piedmont Triad. It also featured heavily in the fight over the proposed districts ahead of the 2016 elections.

The Most Recent Fight in North Carolina Gerrymandering

North Carolina saw a wave of Republicans elected to Congress and the General Assembly in 2010. These election results (after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory) put Republicans in charge of redrawing the congressional district lines.

“I think 2010 was a natural backlash as it was across the country, but it benefitted Republicans, and they took advantage of it,” Bitzer said.

Fast forward six years, and once again Republicans were fighting over North Carolina gerrymandering. And the twelfth district was again part of it.

Republicans changed the district lines so much that the twelfth no longer went up I-85 from Charlotte to the Piedmont Triad. The controversy mostly involved voters around Charlotte. That district alteration meant the Greensboro home of Congresswoman Alma Adams, a Democrat who represented the twelfth, was now more than an hour’s drive from those she represented.

Three federal judges responded to claims of gerrymandering in the first and the twelfth districts. They ruled the lines were drawn with the intention to weaken the influence of Black voters by packing them into districts.

It was the same as it was in the late 1800s with the Black Second.

north carolina gerrymandering election district map
Image courtesy of Common Cause.

Here’s how effective the North Carolina gerrymandering was in 2016: Republicans represented 10 of the 13 districts after that year’s election, despite receiving just 53.3% of the statewide popular vote.

The battle finally ended in December 2019, when a panel of three N.C. Superior Court judges said the borders for the 2020 election could stand. This result leads to the question: how many Republicans and Democrats will represent the state in the U.S. House?

FiveThirtyEight predicted in December 2019 that Democrats are likely to pick up two seats from North Carolina but Republicans will have a slight advantage in representation. Only in 2020 (and your vote) can we say for sure whether gerrymandering again played a role in North Carolina elections.

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