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The 2022 midterm elections are the first of the Biden era. They're also the first since the 2020 census, which means there are new congressional districts. There are U.S. Senate races in the Carolinas as well, along with many state and local races.

North Carolina's redistricting is complicated as lawmakers fit in a 14th U.S. House seat

Voters cast ballots at Belmont Elementary School on Nov. 3, 2020. Erin Keever/WFAE
Erin Keever

North Carolina lawmakers are in the midst of redistricting. That’s where they redraw state and federal legislative maps based on the latest census numbers. This year’s process comes after courts threw out the maps drawn a decade ago saying they were illegally gerrymandered.

North Carolina’s getting an additional seat in the U.S. House. And a big question facing lawmakers is where to put it.

For some perspective, we turn to Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. He was also part of a team led by Duke University to draw initial groupings of counties for the new state house and senate maps.

Marshall Terry: Welcome.

Christopher Cooper Western Carolina University-min.jpg
Western Carolina University
Christopher Cooper

Christopher Cooper: Thanks so much for having me.

Terry: Redistricting is one of those things that people probably don't give much thought to. But just how important is this process in North Carolina?

Cooper: I mean, it's critical if you care at all about who represents you, if you care at all about how competitive your elections are, really, if you care at all about representative democracy, this is what sets the guardrails. So, it'd be like saying, "Hey, if you're a football fan, do you care about who happens to be on the field? If you're a baseball fan, do you happen to care who makes the playoffs?" This process is exactly what determines that.

Terry: And give me a brief overview, if you will, about how it works. What goes into it?

Cooper: It's a complicated process, and I'll say on the front end, it varies tremendously by state, and it varies even a good bit based on when they do it within a certain state. So, in other words, our process this time is slightly different than last time. But basically, in North Carolina, we have a legislature-dominated process, OK? So, this is in contrast to some other states like Virginia, for example. It's also important to note that we do not have a gubernatorial veto, so (Gov.) Roy Cooper has no more power over these maps than you or I do, as opposed to a state like South Carolina, where the governor can veto those maps.

So, what happens is the census data come down to the block level. And if you don't think about data a lot, think about it just like a city block, right? Kind of a small geographic unit. And then the General Assembly sets some criteria. So, this time they've said that they're not going to use partisan data, they're not going to use racial data, but they can have some measure of incumbency protection. And those three things I just named vary a little bit in how controversial they are, but those are the rules that were set.

They then had a series of 13 open forums throughout the state — one per congressional district. Then right now, they've just been having open map-drawing. So, somebody can go into the General Assembly and actually draw maps and play with maps themselves. And so many of those have certainly been floating around the internet, and people will comment on those. They will then take those maps that have been submitted at the end of that process, and then that's when the rubber is really going to meet the road and they're going to get to selecting maps and deciding which one we're going to be governed by.

And it's important for folks to remember: This, of course, is for Congress, which is getting the lion's share of attention. That's going to be 14 congressional seats. But they also need to draw lines for 170 General Assembly districts, 120 in the House, 50 in the Senate. And the rules for the General Assembly lines are a little bit different than the rules for the congressional lines, just in case you weren't confused enough.

"I think you said we draw these maps every 10 years, and that certainly should be the case, but in the state of North Carolina, we tend to draw these maps about every two years because of the way we've had so many court challenges."
— Christopher Cooper, Western Carolina University

Terry: It is a lot to take in. You said state lawmakers will not be using partisan and racial data as they redraw these maps. Those were at the heart of the lawsuits and court rulings over the maps that were drawn a decade ago. Courts threw out those maps because of what they said was illegal gerrymandering, specifically partisan and racial gerrymandering. That's packing residents together with the same party affiliation or race. So, if lawmakers are not using that data this time around, does that mean we won't see it?

Cooper: You know, I doubt it. I think certainly for partisan data, I think everybody agrees it's good that they're not using partisan data. So, this is one thing where the Democrats and Republicans can hold hands and say, "OK, that's good." Now, I think people disagree about the degree to which that will matter. So, I think in general, with some exceptions, the Republicans are arguing, "Hey, we're not using partisan data. This really makes sure that we're not going to have gerrymandered maps." I think the Democratic response, again, by and large, has been that is a good thing, but it is certainly not a guarantee of good and fair maps, that the members of the General Assembly certainly know which blocks, which precincts, which parts of town tend to vote a certain way.

So, that's kind of on the political end. You see even more division on the use of racial data. The Republicans, again, in general, have argued that they shouldn't be using racial data, that if we need to be colorblind in the way we draw these maps, we should be colorblind as to the data. The Democratic response, by and large, has been that we should be using racial data because otherwise there's no way to check and see if we have Voting Rights Act violations, for example, or other problems. So, you do see some disagreement between the parties, not just on what the final maps are going to look like, but even in the criteria we use to get there.

Terry: North Carolina is getting a 14th congressional seat this time around. What determines exactly where that's going to go?

Cooper: The General Assembly. So again, this is where the legislature certainly has a lot of power. We have to have for Congress the same number of people who live in every district. And in case that just seems obvious to you, there actually is little bit of more tolerance for state legislative districts. In other words, state legislative districts have to be roughly about the same size. For Congress, they have to be the exact same size — the same number of people.

So, they will drop a 14th district somewhere in the state of North Carolina, but I do hope that people will pay attention to how the other districts shift as well. So, the 1st District up in the northeastern corner of our state is going to have to grow. All the other districts are going to have to shrink in geography. So, you can imagine just sort of dropping a big boulder right in the middle of a lake. Yes, the point of impact matters, but you're going to get those ripples felt throughout the lake, and I think that's what's going to happen in the state of North Carolina. So, let's pay attention to (district) 14, but let's not forget that (districts) 1 through 13 will also shift.

Terry: Do you expect there to be legal challenges to these maps like last time?

Cooper: It's likely. We'll see what the final maps look like. Certainly, if we see maps that are considered fair maps, maybe we won't have any. But if the past is any guide in North Carolina, I would say we will have some... I think you said we draw these maps every 10 years, and that certainly should be the case, but in the state of North Carolina, we tend to draw these maps about every two years because of the way we've had so many court challenges. I hope we're going to see an end to that, but if the past is any guide, we won't.

Terry: Some argue that redistricting should not be done by lawmakers, who obviously have a vested interest in the process, but rather by an independent commission. Is that something that could eventually happen in North Carolina?

Cooper: I think it is something that could happen in North Carolina. It has happened in other states. Certainly, Virginia has a model kind of like that that's occurring and that's certainly a bluer state the North Carolina, but has been competitive in the recent past. There is a fairly active redistricting reform movement in the state of North Carolina that includes both Democrats and Republicans, so I do have some hope it could happen at some point. It's not going to happen during this cycle, though.

Terry: So, where is the process now in redrawing these maps? And what comes next?

Cooper: Right now, we're seeing these draft maps come out, and again, this is important. Pay attention, but don't get too locked into any one map. Pretty soon — and I realize that's a vague term, but pretty soon — the General Assembly will start to decide between some of these competing maps, start debating this in in earnest, and we will see some draft maps come out soon.

As far as when the end goal is, the General Assembly has said late October to early November. We'll see if they're held to that, but that's about when I would expect to see an answer. So, I've been telling people when the last leaves fall off the trees, you can probably expect to see some maps in North Carolina.

Terry: Thank you so much for taking the time.

Cooper: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

Terry: Christopher Cooper is a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.