Last Tuesday, the Wake County Superior Court struck down North Carolina’s legislative maps, ruling in Common Cause v. Lewis that their extreme partisan gerrymandering violates our state constitution. Republicans drew the maps to secure a significant partisan advantage in both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA), sometimes “packing” Democratic voters into fewer districts to give Republicans a partisan advantage and at other times “cracking” Democratic voters across multiple districts to dilute their votes.
The 357-page ruling lays out a tremendous amount of evidence regarding the tactics the GOP used to lock in its extreme partisan advantage—and issues a strong rebuke. It gives the GOP-controlled legislature two weeks (with a Sept. 18 deadline) to publicly redraw “remedial maps,” directing it to redraw 56 NC House and 21 NC Senate districts. The ruling further decrees that the court will “appoint a Referee to (1) assist the Court in reviewing any Remedial Maps enacted by the General Assembly; and (2) to develop remedial maps for the Court should the General Assembly fail to enact lawful Remedial Maps within the time allowed.”
While we’re celebrating this ruling, it remains to be seen whether this process will bring an end to the NC GOP’s partisan gerrymandering and lead to truly fair maps. No matter what process they use to draw the maps, the GOP knows these districts, and they don’t need partisan data at their fingertips to build in unfair advantages for themselves. While they may propose a process that appears nonpartisan or bipartisan, they likely know what the outcome will be, and their history suggests that they’ll choose a process that benefits them to whatever extent that they can.
The decree itself issues some specific guidelines but leaves a lot of room for the GOP to attempt its usual shenanigans. While the ruling bars the legislature from using voting outcome data, its other directives are not particularly tight. For example, while the ruling presents a lot of evidence that the enacted maps are extreme outliers in the number municipalities they split (i.e., where the GOP “cracked” Democratic voters), the decree only directs that “the mapmakers may consider municipal boundaries when drawing legislative districts in the Remedial Maps” (emphasis added). It also says “the mapmakers may take reasonable efforts not to pair incumbents unduly in the same election district” but does not directly prohibit them from doing so for partisan gain. And the ruling does not lay out specific criteria for determining whether the General Assembly has “enact[ed] lawful Remedial Maps;” it only directs that if they do not do so, the referee will.
We are hopeful that this process will result in fair(er) maps but remain wary of how Republicans may attempt to subvert the process and how the court would handle these attempts. Below, we lay out where we would expect to see a newly expanded playing field under truly fair maps—and what to watch out for from the GOP.
Despite Democrats winning a majority of the statewide vote in 2018, Republicans currently hold a 65-55 majority in the NC House. Under the current NC House map, Democrats would have faced a narrow path to breaking the majority, essentially needing to achieve a 7-point swing while perfectly running the table in every district that is somewhat competitive to achieve the (net) 6-seat gain needed.
If the remedial maps truly eliminate partisan gerrymandering, the competitive landscape will expand significantly, putting 12-15 GOP-held districts in play in 2020 and greatly reducing the swing needed to break the majority—likely to 2-3 points.
These are the areas where we might expect to see the biggest improvements to the competitive landscape—and what the GOP could do to undermine them:
Alamance County (Burlington area) - Alamance County is a fairly “purple” county. The current map cracks voters in the heavily blue Burlington-Graham center of the county across its two NC House districts (NC-H63 and NC-H64) to dilute their voting power. Despite this pair of districts being drawn to maximize Republicans’ chances to retain both, Democrats nearly flipped NC-H63 in 2018, coming within fewer than 300 votes. Unless Republicans can get away with continuing to crack the Democratic core of Alamance, Democrats should be favored to win one of these districts in 2020.
New Hanover County (Wilmington area) - In New Hanover County, the map is currently drawn to split blue Wilmington into three districts (NC-H18, NC-H19, and NC-H20), with the most Democratic-leaning precincts packed into NC-H18. Even with this voter packing, NC-H19 and NC-H20 remained two of the most flippable districts under the current map. Fairer maps would spread some of the Democratic voters currently packed into NC-H18 into NC-H19, NC-H20, or both, making at least one of these districts much more favorable for Democrats in 2020. Republicans could continue trying to pack as many of Wilmington’s core Democratic precincts into a single district as possible while trying to divide the remaining precincts among multiple districts. These Democratic precincts are easy to spot; they’re the most compact precincts in the county.
Forsyth County (Winston-Salem area) - The Forsyth County map is one of the most extreme gerrymanders in the state. The largely Democratic voters of Winston-Salem are completely packed into two districts, while the remaining two districts in Forsyth County are drawn around the edges of the county to maximize their Republican lean. Ending the intentional partisan gerrymander in Forsyth County would mean more Democratic voters would be included in suburban NC-H74 and/or NC-H75, both of which are already in the competitive range. Republicans could try to keep two more compact central districts while minimizing the number of Democratic precincts that are included in the outer two districts (attempting to replicate the current partisan gerrymander), or they could make one of the four Forsyth districts as Republican-leaning as possible, giving up a third district as an easy pick-up for Democrats to limit the risk of losing the fourth.
Cumberland County (Fayetteville area) - In Cumberland County, Fayetteville voters are strongly packed into NC-H42, NC-H43, and NC-H44, all of which are overwhelmingly Democratic leaning. This leaves a single suburban district, NC-H45, which is currently drawn to maximize its Republican lean. This district should become far more competitive if Democratic voters are spread more evenly across these four districts. Republicans could try to preserve their partisan advantage by replicating the current boundaries of NC-H45 as much as possible while using more significant changes to the boundaries of the other three districts to try to distract critical observers.
Cabarrus County (Concord area) - The court found that, under the current map, “the cities of Kannapolis and Concord are both split across House Districts 82 and 83, cracking Democratic voters across these districts to dilute their voting power.” If the voters of Kannapolis and Concord are not split, one of these districts should become much more favorable for Democrats. If Republicans attempt to defy the courts by putting Kannapolis and Concord into separate districts, this will be a clear sign that they are attempting to preserve their advantage with a new partisan gerrymander.
Guilford County (Greensboro area) - The court has ordered Republicans to redraw three of the six districts in Guilford County. Two of these districts are already overwhelmingly Democratic, so ending partisan gerrymandering would mean that the remaining suburban district, NC-H59, would become far more competitive for Democrats. Republicans could try to limit the improvement of NC-H59 by excluding as many blue Greensboro and High Point districts as possible, likely by continuing to draw its boundaries along the edges of the county (while excluding the Democratic-leaning High Point area along the border).
Pitt-Lenoir counties (Greenville area) - On the whole, the three districts comprising the Pitt-Lenoir county grouping lean Democratic. By splitting Greenville “with surgical precision,” Republicans managed to pack enough Democratic voters into NC-H8 that they were able to take both NC-H9 and NC-H12 fairly easily in 2018. With fair maps, either NC-H9 or NC-H12 (or both!) should become much more competitive in 2020. Republicans could try to keep as much of the central Democratic core concentrated in one district as possible, or they could try to divide it among two districts to ensure that the third remains securely GOP-leaning.
Mecklenburg County (Charlotte area) - Republicans drew the current districts in Mecklenburg County to maximize their chances of holding four suburban districts (NC-H98, NC-H103, NC-H104, and NC-H105) at the edges of the county. Despite Republicans maximizing their advantage in these districts, Democrats flipped all four of these seats in 2018. Fair maps should make defending each of these seats easier in 2020, although Republicans could try to maintain as much of an edge as possible in NC-H103, in the southeast portion of Mecklenburg County.
Other areas – Two of the districts in Franklin and Nash counties are currently drawn to give Democrats an edge in NC-H25 and Republicans an edge in NC-H7. Both districts are likely to be much more competitive under the new maps. The court has also found that Republicans have illegally split a number of other cities into multiple districts, including Gastonia and Monroe. Correcting these illegal gerrymanders could give Democrats an outside chance to flip another district in one of these areas.
Democrats already faced a narrower path to taking the majority in the NC Senate compared to the NC House. Even under fair(er) maps, that is unlikely to change, but the elimination of extreme partisan gerrymandering would certainly improve Democrats’ chances to make gains in the NC Senate.
Republicans currently hold a 29-to-21-seat edge in the NC Senate, meaning Democrats need a net gain of 4 seats to break even and 5 seats to take the majority. While fair(er) maps would make it easier for Democrats to protect the most vulnerable seats they flipped 2018 and give them a better shot at picking up the next couple of districts they lost by relatively close margins, the next closest set of targets would still require a more significant swing to flip.
Here is what we might expect for the NC Senate:
Wake County (Raleigh area) - Republicans drew the current maps to maximize the Republican lean of two suburban districts: NC-S17 and NC-S18. Despite this extreme gerrymander, Democrats flipped NC-S17, winning by 4 points in 2018, while losing NC-S18 by 3 points. With fair maps, NC-S17 will become easier to defend and NC-H18 easier to flip in 2020. Republicans would likely focus their efforts on trying to maintain their unfair advantage in NC-S18.
Mecklenburg County (Charlotte area) - The situation in Mecklenburg County is similar to Wake: Republicans created NC-S39 and NC-S41 by tracing the edges of the county to maximize the Republican advantage. Despite the unfair attempt to secure both districts for Republicans, Democrats flipped NC-S41 and came close in NC-S39 in 2018. Fair maps would make both districts more favorable for Democrats in 2020. Again, Republicans are likely to focus their efforts on maintaining an advantage in NC-S39. The other Mecklenburg districts will become favorable to Democrats no matter how they are drawn.
New Hanover County (Wilmington area) - Republicans drew the two districts comprising the Bladen-Brunswick-New Hanover-Pender grouping in “the most maximally favorable construction … possible for Republicans” by carving out the most Democratic-leaning precincts in Wilmington and “grouping them instead with heavily Republican areas in Bladen, Pender, and Brunswick counties.” Eliminating this extreme partisan gerrymander would make NC-S9 in New Hanover County, which Democrats flipped in 2018 by only 1%, easier to defend in 2020.
Guilford County (Greensboro area) - The court has ordered the NCGA to redraw NC-S26 and NC-S27 in Guilford and Randolph counties. Under the current maps, the entire Democratic-leaning city of High Point was carved out of Guilford County and added to NC-S26 in Randolph County. This maximized the GOP’s chances of holding NC-S27, which Democrats flipped in 2018, winning by 1%. NC-S27 will become much safer for Democrats once the partisan gerrymander is eliminated.
Other areas - In the absence of extreme partisan gerrymandering, NC-S11 in the Duplin-Harnett-Johnston-Lee-Nash-Sampson county grouping would likely become significantly more Democratic-leaning, potentially moving it into the flippable range for 2020.
To recap: Since 2011, Republicans have shamelessly attacked our democratic institutions from every angle for their own partisan gain. Again, they know these districts, and they don’t need voting data at their fingertips to pack and crack them to their advantage. If the court is not careful, it could unwittingly give the GOP a chance to further stack the map in its favor. While the court’s ruling makes us hopeful, it’s critical that we maintain cautious optimism while keeping a watchful eye on this process. We encourage you to follow the hearings while considering what we’ve outlined here and to contact your representatives to demand an end to partisan gerrymandering.