A new proposed redistricting map would change only a small number of legislative districts, but could have major implications on North Carolina politics. It was drawn not by lawmakers, but by a court-appointed professor to correct illegal racial gerrymanders and other districts that may violate state law.
All Things Considered Host Mark Rumsey and WFAE's Tom Bullock discuss what all of this may mean.
MARK RUMSEY: Tom, remind us of who this special master is.
TOM BULLOCK: Nathaniel Persily is his name. He's a legal professor at Stanford and has a long track record of independent redistricting. Persily's resume shows he has worked as a special master or court-appointed redistricting expert in five states and Puerto Rico.
Persily was hired by the court on November 1. The state has to pay his fee of $500 per hour. And the fact that Persily has released this draft in less than two weeks show he's moving fast on this redistricting front.
MR: So why did the court hire a special master at all?
TB: This was a big twist in a case that's gone on for more than a year now. Once the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that 28 of North Carolina's 170 state legislative districts were illegal racial gerrymanders the General Assembly slowly began the redistricting process. That was completed in September.
But the African-American voters who are the plaintiffs in this case argued the new maps didn't do enough to fix all the illegal districts. They also argued state lawmakers violated a state ban on mid-decade redistricting when they changed districts that were not found to be illegal.
The Court has yet to rule in this remedial phase of the case – but they sent a clear message that they had concerns with the state's redistricting plans when they hired an independent special master.
MR: And the court gave Persily very specific instructions on redrawing these districts.
TB: They did. Persily was told to only change four districts argued to still be illegal racial gerrymanders. And five districts which were redrawn and may violate that mid-decade redistricting ban. Add in the needed changes to some surrounding areas since legislative districts are just like puzzle pieces and Persily was only allowed to change a relatively small number of districts.
And the court was very specific about what criteria he could use in his redistricting. Namely Persily's proposed districts must be compact, have the state mandated population give or take 5 percent and remedy any racial packing. Also worth noting is the fact Persily was barred from using election results in drawing these new maps. It's an effort to have these new boundaries drawn in a non-partisan fashion since election results data is a key category politicians use when drawing partisan gerrymandered districts.
MR: So what are the headlines in this new map?
TB: Everyone is trying to figure out if these proposed districts would favor one party or another. And while Persily himself was barred from cross checking election results, we were not.
Enter Michael Bitzer. He looked at the draft districts and compared them to vote totals from the 2016 Presidential Election.
"And there's a pretty strong correlation between how somebody votes on the presidential level and how they vote down the ballot. So North Carolina state House, North Carolina state Senate. It's pretty close in terms of a relationship between the two."
TB: Republicans hold supermajorities in both the state House and Senate. Bitzer doesn’t see much changing in terms of the Senate. But he does see some potential movement in the House. Specifically in Guilford County
"One of the districts that was heavily Republican has now, it looks like it's shifted to being heavily Democratic. So that's going to be a potential pick up for Democrats there."
TB: That would still leave the House with a two person supermajority. So this draft plan alone would not shift power in Raleigh.
MR: So that's the big picture take on this current draft. But it's important to point out this draft will change.
TB: Yes. How much we don’t yet know. And that's because of incumbents. This draft did not consider if the incumbent lives in the new districts. Lawmakers have until the end of the day today to get that information to the special master. And the court has ordered Persily to try to keep incumbents in their current districts so long as it doesn’t morph the compactness of the boundaries.
And the current map does have a few double-bunkings, meaning two incumbents suddenly in the same district. So yes, some boundaries are likely to change.
MR: We've talked big picture, but let's zoom in on Mecklenburg County. Any big changes here?
TB: On the Senate side, none at all. Which itself is a bit curious. The plaintiffs in this case complained to the court that Republican Jeff Tarte's district was one of those dramatically redrawn even though it was not ordered to be by the court. Yet the court did not ask the special master to redraw that district.
But four House districts in southern Mecklenburg County were redrawn. And I asked Michael Bitzer what he thought the changes might mean.
"Certainly House District 92, which is Chaz Beesley's, it pretty much stays Democratic but probably becomes a little bit less Democratic potentially. The other three House Districts, 103 which is Bill Brawley, 104 which is Andy Dulin and 105 which is Scott Stone, they all shift, but they shift into more Republican areas."
MR: So what happens next in this case?
TB: The state and the plaintiffs have until Friday to file objections and revisions to this draft map. And until next Tuesday to file rebuttals. The special master will then submit his final map to the court on December 1.
The court has yet to rule on this and they hired the special master in an effort to save time. So the court could go with his map, the lawmakers map or something else entirely. We're expecting a ruling sometime in January.