As early as next week, North Carolina lawmakers will begin to craft maps, grouping voters into districts that will elect the next officials to serve in the state legislature and the United States House of Representatives.
These maps “will not only shape our political landscape, but also the contours of our democracy for the next decade,” said Deondra Rose, associate professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and director of Polis: Center for Politics.
North Carolina is rapidly growing and changing. The 2020 census showed that roughly 900,000 more people live in the state compared to 10 years ago, and this growth has added a new congressional seat, giving North Carolina 14 U.S. House representatives. The data also reveal a more urban, diverse population.
“The responsiveness of our political system to the will of the people is at the root of so many of the challenges that we face,” said Asher Hildebrand, associate professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy. “And that’s ultimately why we care about redistricting.”
With that sense of urgency, scholars, legal experts, journalists, advocates and students gathered to examine and discuss reforms to the redistricting process in North Carolina and around the country during a conference held Sept. 28-29 at Duke University. Polis: Center for Politics at the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Math Department hosted the conference, “Redistricting and American Democracy.”
As these district maps take shape, here are some key points from the conference to keep in mind.
1. North Carolina has an infamous redistricting history
The census, collected every 10 years, forms the basis for each iteration of the district maps nationwide. And in North Carolina, it’s complicated.
The battleground state has been the epicenter of many concerns about gerrymandering, or manipulating voting districts for political advantage, said J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College.
“North Carolina has the distinct honor of never having a complete set of maps – congressional or state legislative maps – last an entire 10 years for the past 40 years,” Bitzer said.
Political maneuvering has bled into the process, and litigation has forced many of the maps to be tossed.
“In part, it’s because of the technology that now allows the micro-precision targeting of voters, based on voter behavior and other demographics,” said Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director of Common Cause. “To pinpoint who is on your team versus who’s not on your team and gerrymander the districts with that kind of ‘surgical precision,’ as the North Carolina courts have pointed out.”
2. Changes were made for the current round of map-drawing
The state legislators have agreed to adopt nonpartisan criteria for redistricting this year.
The new rules include that each district should be drawn to contain nearly equal population, form geographically contiguous boundaries and have minimal splitting of counties. The maps should not use voting information or racial data.
In an effort to increase transparency, the map-drawing process will also be live-streamed to the public.
“For the public to be able to see what is happening is great, but what does that actually mean?” said Caroline Mackie, who advises local governments tasked with redistricting as a partner with Poyner Spruill, a North Carolina-based law firm.
As Mackie points out, it remains to be seen how the state legislature will incorporate public input and oversight into the final maps. Experts at the conference cautioned that just because the process is designed to be “nonpartisan” doesn’t necessarily mean the outcome will be fair.
3. A new mathematics method makes it easier to find fair maps
Thanks to the work of mathematicians, there are now ways to test maps for political influence. Duke is at the forefront of developing these analytical tools that can be used to measure and restrain gerrymandering.
A team led by Jonathan Mattingly, a mathematics professor at Duke, created simulations that showed extreme partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina’s district maps over the past decade. With their analysis of tens of thousands of maps, they were able to compare existing maps to neutral possibilities.
This census cycle will be the first where these mathematical tools will be employed at the onset of the map-drawing process in North Carolina and across the country. Mattingly’s team and other mathematicians are currently analyzing census data to determine what fair maps will look like this time around.
Mattingly hopes the ensemble method, which generates a suite of alternative maps, will create a transparent conversation about the criteria ultimately chosen for district maps.
“You can see the effect of these nonpartisan criteria and how they play out,” Mattingly said.
4. You can participate in the redistricting process
The public will be able to watch the district map-drawing process through a livestream, although the timeline for those sessions is still uncertain.
It’s important to be able to watch the process and ask legislators questions about the criteria being considered, said Melissa Boughton, a senior communications specialist at the Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law.
“If you see part of the map being drawn in one of those weird shapes,” Boughton said. “Ask ‘Hey, what is the reason for this? Or, ‘what would it look like if we didn’t split up this community?’”
There are other ways for citizens to get involved, including submitting comments through an online portal, contacting their representatives and attending a public hearing held after the maps are drawn.
Many municipalities are also redrawing their city council, county commission, school board and other district lines this year.
5. There is broad, bipartisan support for reform
The new maps must be approved by the legislature at least a month before the candidate filing deadline for the 2022 elections on Dec. 6.
With this latest effort to draw new maps, we will perhaps see “a façade of good faith,” warned Lekha Shupeck, the North Carolina director for All on the Line, an advocacy group that focuses on redistricting and voter representation.
“One thing that does give me hope,” Shupeck said. “People are aware now, and they’re smarter around these issues than they’ve ever been before.”
Future options for reform include changing steps of the current procedure, or a larger change such as removing legislators from the map-drawing process and employing an independent redistricting commission.
In a session at the conference, both Tom Ross, former president of the University of North Carolina system and co-chair of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, and Art Pope, chairman of the John William Pope Foundation, agreed there is strong bipartisan support for ending partisan gerrymandering through redistricting reform.
“Now is the time to start thinking about how to make the 2030 election more fair,” Ross said.
Find out more about the redistricting process and engage with other political issues through Polis: Center for Politics: https://polis.duke.edu/.