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The articles from Inside Politics With Steve Harrison appear first in his weekly newsletter, which takes a deeper look at local politics, including the latest news on the Charlotte City Council, what's happening with Mecklenburg County's Board of Commissioners, the North Carolina General Assembly and much more.

Congressional mapmaker Bob Orr speaks: No one had the ability to ‘cook the books’

Map of NC congressional districts
State of North Carolina
The maps produced by Bob Orr and other special masters in North Carolina.

This article appeared first in the Inside Politics newsletter, published weekly by WFAE's Steve Harrison. Sign up to get the news first in your inbox here.

Last year, the Republican-controlled General Assembly drew a congressional map that heavily favored the GOP in 10 of 14 seats.

The North Carolina Supreme Court rejected that map. The GOP drew another.

The second map was fairer. It favored Republicans in six seats and the Democrats in four. Four seats were highly competitive.

The courts also rejected that map. A three-judge panel then appointed three special masters to draw the congressional map, which was used in November.

It had seven strong Republican seats and six strong or leaning Democratic seats. One seat was a toss-up, which Democrat Wiley Nickel won by three percentage points.

The three special masters have been silent about their map — and how they drew it.

But one of the mapmakers, former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, spoke with Inside Politics last week about what happened behind closed doors.

Orr is a former Republican who left the party and became unaffiliated in protest of former President Trump.

Bob Orr

As soon as the 7-6-1 map was released, some Republicans quickly criticized it. The conservative John Locke Foundation wrote that “Bob Orr Put His Thumb on the Scale for Congressional Democrats.”

They alleged that Orr drew the 14th Congressional District in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties as tailor-made for Democrat Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte attorney who ultimately won his race.

The special masters cut the city of Charlotte in half by splitting the city’s Black community on the west side. By placing Democratic voters into two districts instead of packing them into one district, the map maximized Democratic strength in the county.

“Are you asking me if I drew it for Jeff Jackson?” Orr said. “You know, Jeff Jackson never entered my mind. You had three special masters — one a registered Republican, one a former Republican and one registered Democrat. We didn’t draw the maps in the sense of by ourselves. We had an expert who was hired to do the technical part of the map drawing.”

Orr added that the map he helped draw was ultimately approved by a three-judge panel that included two Republicans.

“It’s not like anybody had the ability to cook the books,” he said. “It was a collective process.”


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Was the third and final map better than the second?

The 7-6-1 map used in November was arguably a better map than the 10-3-1 originally drawn by the GOP.

But was it better than the second Republican-drawn map?

That map, remember, had four competitive districts. In those seats, the race would have been decided in the general election — not in the party primaries.

I asked Orr whether he and his colleagues worried that their map was less competitive.

“As a voter, competitive races are the best,” Orr said. “The second (Republican) map was a more competitive map. So if that is your criteria, that is the best map.”

But Orr said his instructions from the court were not to consider competitiveness. He had to follow a mathematical formula to determine whether the map was drawn for partisan advantage.

“It’s a valid point to say, 'Gee, the second map the legislature drew had more competitive districts,' but that wasn’t the test we were given,” Orr said.

Orr said repeatedly the special masters were simply following the then-Democratic majority state Supreme Court's instructions, even though Orr said they struggled to understand what the instructions were.

“We probably re-read that opinion multiple times trying to understand what we thought the court said needed to be done,” he said.

The November election produced seven Republicans and seven Democrats.

Other than Nickel’s race, the only other relatively close contest was won by Democrat Don Davis, who defeated Sandy Smith by five percentage points.

The other races were blowouts, for both Republicans and Democrats. The average margin of victory was 25 percentage points.

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This map will be short-lived

This will probably be the last election for the 7-6-1 map.

GOP Senate leader Phil Berger said last week the legislature will probably draw a new congressional map this summer. Berger said he will wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Moore vs. Harper — a case brought by state Republican leaders who argue only the legislature can draw Congressional maps.

Even if SCOTUS rules against the Republicans, the GOP now has a 5-2 majority on the state Supreme Court. The court may uphold a new congressional map — even if it’s a 10-3-1 or 11-3 gerrymander in favor of Republicans.

“I think the (state Supreme Court) will say that redistricting is a political consideration, and if they are drawn for partisan advantage that is just the way it is,” Orr said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Orr donated $500 to Jeff Jackson's race. Orr's son, Robert Orr, made the donation.

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.