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North Carolina’s extreme gerrymandering could save the House Republican majority

The state’s incomprehensible, constantly changing congressional districts, explained.

GREENSBORO, North Carolina — North Carolina A&T State University may look like any other college campus, but there’s an invisible line splitting it down the middle, carving it into two different congressional districts.

North Carolina A&T is the largest historically black public college in the country. Each day, students walking from the library to the main dining hall regularly cross from the Sixth Congressional District to the 13th District. Students who move from a dorm on the north side of campus to one on the south side have to reregister to vote in a new district, and then reregister again if they move back.

Until Republican redistricting in 2016, the campus and its 10,000 students were packed into the 12th Congressional District represented by Democratic Rep. Alma Adams, an African-American alum of North Carolina A&T, but now it’s split between two white male Republicans: Reps. Mark Walker of the Sixth District and Ted Budd of the 13th.

“We’ve got two pretty conservative white men that don’t look like the majority of students,” said Reggie Weaver, who directs campus outreach for Common Cause North Carolina, a voting rights and campaign finance reform group in the state.

Some A&T students think it’s no accident their college was divided into two districts.

“This many students has the ability to sway any election. Dividing that in half, putting half this way, half the other in a majority-Republican district, that definitely dilutes the vote,” said sophomore A&T student Love Caesar.

North Carolina A&T students Love Caesar and Braxton Brewington stand next to Laurel Street, which splits their campus into two congressional districts.
Ella Nilsen/Vox

North Carolina Republican lawmakers are facing many legal challenges to their 2016 maps, which they redrew after a US Supreme Court case deemed older maps drawn in 2011 to be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander that disadvantaged the state’s black voters. When Republicans set to map-drawing in 2016, they were clear: This time, they were doing a partisan gerrymandering.

Partisan gerrymandering, the process of redrawing state and congressional districts to benefit a particular political party, isn’t new to the state. For years, Democrats used it to consolidate power, something pointed out by state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat representing Charlotte.

“When the Republicans were back in the minority, they wanted to end gerrymandering, and my side always took those bills they filed and threw them in the trash can because we never thought we’d be out of power,” Jackson said. “Then as soon as it switched and Democrats were in the minority, the first thing we said was, ‘Hey, how about independent redistricting?’ And the first thing Republicans said was, ‘How about epic payback?’”

As Republicans in swing states across the country worry about a possible 2018 blue wave sweeping in Democrats, North Carolina Republicans can rest easy. Not a single one of the 10 Republican districts (there are 13 in total) is rated by the Cook Political Report as less than R+6. If there’s a historic blue wave this year, it might be enough for Democrats to pick up a seat or two, but they’re far more likely to win big in states like Pennsylvania or California.

Traveling to North Carolina, it becomes clear how deeply gerrymandering has impacted every facet of life in the state. Businesses are furious about the drastic partisan swings from cycle to cycle and the resulting impact on taxes and regulation. Gerrymandering is so much a part of the state’s political culture that some breweries have named their beers for it, and there are races where people run along the district lines — a seemingly incomprehensible path.

The question is if the state will ever change. Some lawmakers and advocates are hopeful it will, but they have a lot of work to do to reset the political calculus.

Welcome to North Carolina, “ground zero” for gerrymandering

North Carolina is a purple state. Politically, the state is about 50 percent Democrat and 50 percent Republican — it went for Barack Obama in 2008 but for Republicans in 2012 and 2016 (although voters elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper). In a competitive election year like 2018, Democrats should have the opportunity to pick up plenty of congressional seats.

But if you look at its congressional maps, Republicans have an incredibly lopsided advantage. That’s intentional; Republican state Rep. Dave Lewis admitted as much in 2016, during the redistricting process.

“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” Lewis said at a state House hearing.

At the time, North Carolina was coming off of a US Supreme Court ruling that the 2011 maps drawn by Republicans were an unconstitutional racial gerrymander meant to dilute the voting power of the state’s African-American voters. Lawmakers were scrambling to figure out how to redraw their congressional districts in the wake of the ruling, and Lewis went on the record to be clear that the maps they were drawing were meant to disadvantage Democrats — not voters of color.

“We want to make clear that we, to the extent are going to use political data in drawing this map — it is to gain partisan advantage on the map,” Lewis said. “I want that criteria to be clearly stated and understood.”

Looking at a map of the state, North Carolina’s congressional districts look like a bunch of strange squiggles. The new partisan maps are actually cleaner than the old ones, if you look at the two side by side.

“I mean, it’s confusing even to the candidates, and they’re supposed to know where they’re running from,” said state Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican sponsoring a nonpartisan redistricting bill. “With the redistricting lawsuits, people are in one district at one point — the next year they’re not in one district, and then some court decision occurs and now they’re in a third district.”

Here’s a pre-2016 map of lines that the US Supreme Court deemed a racial gerrymander:

For context, District 12 — the long, skinny squiggle that went all the way from Charlotte up to Greensboro — used to be the district that North Carolina A&T was packed into.

Compare that map to the one with new districts drawn in 2016:

Republicans and Democrats alike agree the lines are cleaner on the new maps, but as Lewis freely offered, they were drawn with the clear intention of keeping Democrats out of power.

The same problem exists for state House and Senate districts. Some House districts in the state cut across neighborhoods, literally separating houses next to each other into two different districts. One of these belongs to Rep. Chaz Beasley, the youngest Democrat in the state assembly, from Charlotte.

“When you look at the district, something doesn’t really look right about it,” Beasley told me. “There’s one part of my district where it’s as wide as a football field, end zone to end zone. There’s another part of my district where the district line goes between two houses on the same street. There are three houses in the district, and the rest of the houses aren’t.”

Trying to describe what their districts look like, lawmakers often use sea creature analogies. North Carolina House Democratic Whip Bobbie Richardson, of District Seven, refers to hers as “an octopus, with all the tentacles reaching here, there, and everywhere.” Democratic state Rep. Grier Martin often calls his district “the mutant crab.” Martin represents state District 34, which curves around its neighboring District 49 like a claw.

State Rep. Grier Martin points to a map of his district, which he nicknamed “the mutant crab” for its shape.
Ella Nilsen/Vox

“The crab’s head and body here,” Martin said, pointing to a map in his office. “And then the huge claw’s reaching around large chunks of what used to be my district — and is getting ready to be my district again — after the latest bit of court-ordered map drawing.”

The complex, ever-shifting web of lines and districts makes it very difficult for voters to keep track of what district they’re in and even who is representing them.

“That confusion, I think, really affects the willingness of voters to participate in the political process,” Martin said. “The constant shuffling of districts further erodes the public’s faith.”

The current maps might be affected by the gerrymandering challenge to Wisconsin’s and Maryland’s congressional maps that the US Supreme Court is considering. But even if a decision comes this summer, a court-ordered redraw likely wouldn’t happen before the 2018 elections.

Why it’s so hard to separate race and party affiliation

Lewis argued that the new maps were based on trying to box out Democrats, not black voters. But nearly every black voter or state lawmaker I talked to when I visited North Carolina said you cannot separate the two that easily.

“They say, ‘We’re going to base this only on party, but the two are inextricably linked,” said Beasley, the state rep from Charlotte, who is African American. He argues that parts of the state are still segregated, with lots of black residents living in urban areas (along with young, progressive white voters).

Beasley’s city of Charlotte is the most populous in the state and one that is racially diverse. It’s the same district that is carved down to the neighborhood, with three houses on a street in a different district than the rest.

“I find it very difficult to understand how you draw maps without considering race when our state is made up of a diverse population,” said Richardson, the Democratic House whip. “We too should be able to have equal access to voting for the people who will represent us.”

The US Supreme Court tried to wrestle with this question in its 2016 decision overturning North Carolina’s old maps as a racial gerrymander. In the footnotes of the decision, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “The sorting of voters on the grounds of their race remains suspect even if race is meant to function as a proxy for other (including political) characteristics.”

Kagan essentially argued that state lawmakers can’t say they are drawing maps that disadvantage black or Latino voters because they predominantly vote Democratic. The catch here is that Republican lawmakers tried to take race out of the equation in their most recent maps, saying the maps were only drawn on the base of partisanship.

In Greensboro, North Carolina A&T students aren’t buying that argument.

“It’s just too specific — the line is too detailed, it’s too effective,” said A&T senior Braxton Brewington. “I think that people in the state legislature are smart, and I think they knew what they were doing. To have six dorms on one side and six dorms on the other is just too coincidental.”

Martin, other Democratic lawmakers, and the students at North Carolina A&T see the redistricting as just a piece of the puzzle in a large group of voter suppression tactics targeting African Americans and other minority voting blocs. In 2013, the state’s general assembly passed a large package of legislation including a strict voter ID law and eliminating early voting (which black voters were more likely to do).

In 2016, a federal court struck down the state’s voter ID law, writing in the decision that its provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” The court seized on the fact that prior to writing their voter ID bill, North Carolina Republican lawmakers had asked for data on the differences between how white and black residents voted. Black voters were less likely to have a state-issued driver’s license, so lawmakers made it one of the few acceptable forms of ID, the court wrote.

“With race data in hand, the legislature amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans,” the judges wrote in their decision. “The bill retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess.”

A&T students like Caesar and Brewington are keenly aware that their campus and city are part of a larger civil rights legacy. Back in 1960, four A&T freshmen sat at the whites-only lunch counter at the local Woolworth’s, helping launch the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They’re known as the Greensboro Four.

“We call them the A&T Four,” Brewington said. “They sat at the counter and demanded to be served. It sparked sit-in movements across the nation.”

Brewington, Caesar, and other students are trying to increase the A&T voter share by writing chalk messages on campus and organizing a “roll to the polls” initiative — essentially, adding a stop at the local polling place to the campus shuttle route.

“When you look at the type of power that those four students had and the type of precedent that they laid for students like Love and me, it is just amazing,” Brewington said. “It’s just a reminder of how much power we have.”

How redistricting polarized North Carolina politics

Republican lawmakers are the ones responsible for state’s maps after they swept in during the 2010 elections, but Democrats are certainly not innocent in all of this either.

When they were in power, Democrats gerrymandered maps to their advantage for years. Ironically, some of the same Republican lawmakers who gerrymandered the current maps have supported redistricting reform bills in the past, when they were in the minority. That changed during the 2010 wave election that saw Republicans sweep in.

Every lawmaker I talked to in North Carolina, Republican and Democrat, said that with the maps, primaries are now the only races that matter in North Carolina — and blamed redistricting for the death of moderate politicians in a state whose voters are politically very moderate.

“What we’ve done is we’re killing off the middle,” said McGrady, the Republican lawmaker sponsoring a nonpartisan redistricting bill. “It’s just hard to find compromise on any set of issues.”

That partisanship is evidenced in easily the most infamous piece of legislation to come out of the North Carolina general assembly: HB 2, which banned transgender people from using the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity and essentially made it legal for municipalities and counties to discriminate against LGBTQ people in the workplace or public accommodations on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

That led to an outcry from business leaders and lawmakers who wanted to make sure the state was seen as a welcoming place for all. The NCAA vowed to boycott the state until the ban was lifted; the Associated Press ran a financial analysis estimating the move would cost the state more than $3.75 billion in lost business over the course of 12 years. (HB 2 was eventually overturned under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.)

But partisan politics has led to other policy impacts, including the lack of Medicaid expansion in the state. Jackson chalks that up to state Republicans fearing it would be too politically unpopular for them to win reelection.

“Expanding Medicaid is just about unanimously popular in the general assembly in private,” he said. “In public, everyone does a song and dance ... but in private there is overwhelming support because we know it would cover 600,000 people in our state.”

The partisan swings in North Carolina politics have also had an impact on the business community, where small-business owners are frustrated with the drastic changes in taxes and business regulations from election cycle to election cycle. Businesses are hoping they can have a similar impact as they did in ending HB 2.

“Businesses got involved, and it changed direction on that issue. It took a long, long time,” said Raleigh brewery owner David Meeker. “It opened everyone’s eyes. We’re not just a little gerrymandered here; we’re outrageously gerrymandered. Thirty percent of the population supporting a fringe bill are ruling our state, and that’s terrible for business.”

An anti-gerrymandering mural on the back of Meeker’s Raleigh brewery, Trophy Brewing Co.
Ella Nilsen/Vox

North Carolina Democrats are hopeful about winning in 2018, but they’re under no impressions that a national wave will turn their state blue. All state lawmakers can do in the meantime is continue to push for bipartisan redistricting reform, and Democratic lawmakers say they need to resist the temptation to screw over Republicans if they get back in power in time to redraw the maps.

“I think it’s important now for us to lay the groundwork so that when we’re all of a sudden back in the majority, we remain the biggest advocates for redistricting reform,” Martin said. “And I think that will be difficult. It will be a desire for revenge; it’s human nature. We need to rise above that.”

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