It's the mantra of North Carolina's Republican leaders: This year's political redistricting will be "fair and legal."
They don't say it will be non-partisan.
The process that will change voting districts for millions of North Carolinians - and the state's political landscape for at least a decade - starts Wednesday when House and Senate lawmakers charged with redrawing districts meet for the first time. A series of public hearings will start in April.
Republicans drawing lines for the first time since Reconstruction will work from a 2010 census that left current congressional and legislative districts unbalanced a decade after they were last drawn.
Rebalancing the district's populations means that some, such as the 1st District of Democrat G.K. Butterfield in the northeast, must be redrawn to take in more people. Others, such as the Charlotte area's 9th District, represented by Republican Sue Myrick, will have to shrink.
Republicans expect the process not only will solidify their new hold on the General Assembly but help them gain as many as four congressional seats. One publication called North Carolina the GOP's "Golden Goose of redistricting."
"If [Republicans] just draw districts that, in their words are fair and legal, they should do pretty good," says Francis De Luca, president of the conservative Civitas Institute.
Drawing legal districts has never been easy in North Carolina.
Cases challenging N.C. plans have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court at least six times in three decades.
"It's definitely been the epicenter of some of the most landmark redistricting cases in the modern era," says Tim Storey, a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Some of the seminal Supreme Court cases that guide legislators in every state in the country in the redistricting process originated in North Carolina."
Those cases as well as a series of state court rulings have created a legal thicket for map-makers. Virtually every case involved interpretations of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law designed to ensure the rights of minorities.
The court has said the state can consider race in redrawing lines. Just not too much.
Race will play a role
This year, race will be a factor again as lawmakers tweak the state's two "majority-minority" congressional districts - the only two represented by African-Americans - and perhaps try to add a third.
"We're looking at our options," says Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican who chairs the Senate Redistricting Committee. "It's all going to be based on where we can find large pockets of population."
To rebalance North Carolina's 13 congressional districts, lawmakers must add nearly 100,000 people - almost the population of Wilmington - to Butterfield's 1st District. They'll have to subtract 3,000 from Charlotte Democrat Mel Watt's 12th District.
They'll have to do both without diluting the influence - what the Supreme Court called the "effective exercise" - of minority voters. Any plan has to win approval of the Democratic-controlled U.S. Justice Department.
African-Americans tend to be concentrated in the state's urban areas and in rural areas in the northeast and south.
One place lawmakers might attempt a third majority-minority district is along the southern tier, through much of what is now Democrat Larry Kissell's 8th District. Such a plan could effectively siphon traditionally Democratic voters from Kissell and Rep. Mike McIntyre of Robeson County who represents the 7th District.
"It's obvious why Republicans would want to create a third minority district," says Democratic Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh. "Their whole goal and purpose is to bring all the black voters in the state together and sort of 'ghettoize' them and reduce their influence in other districts."
Robo-calls target Dems
This week the National Republican Congressional Committee began robo-calls against Kissell and Democratic Reps. Brad Miller and Heath Shuler, blaming them for rising gas prices. Similar calls have targeted McIntyre. All four are among the GOP's top 10 Democratic targets. Redistricting could help unseat them.
Shuler's 11th District must add about 30,000 people. They would likely come from Republican Patrick McHenry's 10th District, making an already conservative district more so.
Rucho has suggested that Kissell's 100,000 Mecklenburg County constituents - most of them Democrats - might be moved to a more compact 12th District.
Miller, a former state senator who in 2001 drew the district he now represents, could lose Democratic voters in Guilford and Wake counties.
Republicans could draw Robeson and Cumberland counties out of McIntyre's 7th District and replace them with Republican-leaning voters along the coast. Republicans could put Kissell and McIntyre, or Miller and Democratic Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill, into the same district.
Working within limits
But map-makers will be constrained by growth patterns, which have seen the state's population shift from rural to urban areas. And every change creates a domino effect on neighboring districts.
"There are just some limits to what they can do, simply because you have to make them fit," says Ferrel Guillory, a UNC-Chapel Hill political analyst.
While federal law will guide congressional maps, a 2002 N.C. Supreme Court ruling sets parameters for state legislative districts.
Chafed by what they consider years of Democratic gerrymanders, Republicans say they can be fair, legal and successful. By changing maps gerrymandered by Democrats, says House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, "logic would dictate that that favors Republicans."
GOP Senate leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County agrees.
"If we draw the plans fairly, consistent with the law, our folks will win on their merits," he says. "We want to draw maps that allow voters to choose their representatives, as opposed to maps where legislators pick their voters."
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