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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.

What's a fair NC congressional map? Democratic expert says GOP would still get most seats

North Carolina's new Congressional map gives Republicans the advantage in 10 of 14 seats.
North Carolina General Assembly
North Carolina's new congressional map gives Republicans the advantage in 10 of 14 seats.

North Carolina is close to a 50-50 state in presidential and U.S. Senate elections, so Democrats have said a fair congressional map should give them the edge in seven U.S. House seats and Republicans the edge in seven — or perhaps a map that favors Republicans in eight seats and Democrats in six.

But Republicans say those aren’t fair maps.

To support that claim, the GOP is pointing to an analysis paid for by the very groups who are suing Republicans.

Jowei Chen
University of Michigan
Jowei Chen

At the end of November, University of Michigan political science professor Jowei Chen filed a report with the court in support of the plaintiffs in the state’s gerrymandering case, which is scheduled for a three-day trial starting Jan. 3. There are several lawsuits that have been combined, including one by individual residents as well as the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters.

Chen said that when he had a computer draw 1,000 maps, a 7-7 split is extremely rare, happening about 3% of the time. Chen determined that by overlaying the results from all statewide North Carolina elections from 2016 to 2020.

When he only used the results of the presidential election in 2020, the computer drew a 7-7 map only 1% of the time.

A map that gives Republicans the advantage in eight of 14 seats would occur 16% of the time based on last year’s presidential election.

Chen finds that a 9-5 Republican map is by far the most common, happening nearly 74% of the time.

Republicans say that shows their map, which gives the GOP the advantage in 10 of 14 seats, shouldn’t be invalidated by the courts.

“You’ve had a lot come from the Democrat party and others, criticizing our maps, our impacts, claiming that we’ve gerrymandered the state,” said Republican state Sen. Ralph Hise, who co-chaired the redistricting committee. “And now you have their expert coming in and showing by strong majorities that their maps produce nine or 10 Republicans if they are drawing fair maps out of the 14 seats.”

Urban counties split three ways

While Chen said a map with nine Republican seats was the most common, Republicans went further than that. They created a map with nine safe seats and a 10th that leans Republican. A map with 10 Republican seats was created in 9% of computer-drawn maps based on the 2020 presidential results.

A computer simulation of 1,000 North Carolina Congressional maps shows the most likely scenario is a map with 9 Republican seats and 5 Demcoratic seats.
Jowei Chen/University of Michigan
A computer simulation of 1,000 North Carolina Congressional maps shows the most likely scenario is a map with 9 Republican seats and 5 Demcoratic seats.

So Chen's analysis suggests that Republicans pressed their advantage — or engaged in gerrymandering — in creating their 10-4 map. They diluted Democratic voters in Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford counties — the state's three largest — by splitting those counties into three districts. In Guilford — home to Greensboro — Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Mannings’ seat was eliminated entirely.

The three safe Democratic seats are in Charlotte and the Triangle, which includes Raleigh.

Guilford County Democratic voter Nicole Quick is one of the plaintiffs who hired Chen, with help from former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, whose organization the National Democratic Redistricting Committee has filed lawsuits over what it considers to be unfair maps nationwide.

“I think what they did was they tried to take those urban centers that have that large concentration of Democratic voters and dilute that vote,” Quick said.

Chen’s report criticizes the Republican map for having few competitive seats.

“The enacted plan’s maximization of 'mid-range' Republican districts necessarily comes at the expense of creating more competitive districts,” Chen wrote.

He added: “… in terms of the total number of Republican-favoring districts created by the plan, the 2021 enacted plan is a statistical outlier when compared to the 1,000 computer-simulated plans.”

But the report also suggests that if the court orders the legislature to draw a new map, Republicans may not have to change much, possibly giving the Democrats back just one seat.

Hise declined to speculate on what that map might be should Republicans lose.

“If someone somewhere in the courts tells us to draw under different circumstances with new made-up criteria, there’s no telling what that outcome may be,” Hise said.

Bob Phillips is the executive director of Common Cause NC, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

He’s concerned because the GOP is locked in for nine safe seats but is favored in a 10th seat and could even win an 11th.

“Third-party analysis that I have seen and looked at did put it as very likely or should I say very well be an 11-3 map,” Phillips said.

Phillips is particularly worried about a rural seat in the northeast part of the state that the GOP made more of a tossup, with a Democrat now favored by only 3.5 points. G.K. Butterfield has held that seat since 2004 and is a past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. He isn’t running for reelection and said has said part of his decision is due to his district losing Black voters.

“It’s fair to raise questions about a seat in the northeast that has been centered where the so-called North Carolina Black Belt is, and that is the majority-minority counties.”

Is a proposed substitute map realistic?

In its lawsuit, the League of Conservation Voters is asking the court to use its own congressional map. It favors Democrats in eight of the 14 seats.

But in his simulation of 1,000 computer-drawn maps, Chen never once produced a map with eight Democratic seats.

The nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project rated the North Carolina congressional map with an “F” grade for fairness. That group said that in its computer simulations, a map with an 8-6 Republican majority was the most common.

Adam Podowitz-Thomas, a legal strategist with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, told WFAE earlier this year that he considered the North Carolina map a gerrymander against Democrats – but not the most egregious example in the nation. He said a Republican-drawn map in Texas and a Democratic map in Illinois are worse.

Dave Wasserman with the Cook Political Report said he believes Republicans have a strong chance at retaking the U.S. House next year. But he said this year’s redistricting cycle hasn’t been that bad for Democrats, and that the party is on track to have more districts won by President Joe Biden than it did in 2020.

In its lawsuit, the League of Conservation Voters is asking the court to use its own Congressional map. Which favors Democrats in eight of the 14 assuming seats.

But in Chen’s simulation of 1,000 computer-drawn maps, his simulation never once produced a map with eight Democratic seats.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.