Politics & Government

What would a new congressional map look like in NC? Here’s one possibility.

Could this map be a possibility for NC congressional redistricting?

North Carolina’s current congressional maps were ruled unconstitutional by a three-judge panel. Could this map be a replacement and be in place by November?
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North Carolina’s current congressional maps were ruled unconstitutional by a three-judge panel. Could this map be a replacement and be in place by November?

Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro is the chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee in the U.S. House. Rep. George Holding of Raleigh is a three-term incumbent who sits on the powerful committee that re-wrote U.S. tax laws over the past two years.

But under a redistricting plan touted by federal judges as a possible replacement for November’s elections, Walker and Holding would be running for re-election in majority Democratic districts. The map would give Democrats an edge in six of North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts, a potential swing of three seats from the current 10-3 split in favor of Republicans.

“It’s a little frustrating. You build relationships in these small towns and communities. At the same time, it’s out of our control,” Walker said. “If we have to get out here and establish new relationships, we’ll do it. Whoever we’re representing, we hope they’re proud enough to continue to send us back to Washington.”

A panel of three federal judges ruled Monday that the state’s current Congressional districting map is unconstitutional because of partisan gerrymandering, and among its potential remedies, the court suggested redrawing the districts in time for the Nov. 6 general election. North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders have asked the eight-member Supreme Court to issue a stay and allow the 2018 election to be held under the current map.

Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.

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The judges even picked out a specific new map: Plan 2-297 by Jowei Chen, a University of Michigan associate professor of political science and an expert in election maps.

Chen, who submitted materials for the plaintiffs in the case, is cited 180 times in the court’s ruling and footnotes. He also worked on redistricting cases in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and several in North Carolina, including in Wake County and Greensboro.

“My role is just limited to describing here are the characteristics of the map, here’s how it came about, here is the computer code that led to the creation of the map,” Chen said Tuesday. “Whether some lawyer finds that to be good or bad, I stay completely out of that.”

Chen built a model that produced 3,000 non-partisan, race-neutral congressional maps. He selected one from a second subset of 1,000 that met additional criteria: protected more incumbents by not pitting them against each other, split fewer counties than the 2016 map, included a district where more than 40 percent of the voting age population was black and contained seven Republican and six Democratic districts. Of those maps, Chen then chose the one that had the most compact districts, according to sworn testimony dated July 11.

The result: Plan 2-297.

Plan 297 congressional districts.

2016 enacted16x9.jpg
Enacted 2016 congressional districts.

“I just applied that criteria: 297 was not randomly picked out,” Chen said. “It was picked because it met specific criteria.”

The court liked it enough that it wants the plaintiffs, led by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, and the defendants, led by top legislative Republicans, to be prepared to debate it.

“The parties should also address in their Aug. 31, 2018, briefing whether any one of the thousands of districting plans currently in the record, including Dr. Chen’s Plan 2-297, could — or should — be adopted as a remedial plan,” the court said in the final line of its ruling.

The court did not rule out giving the General Assembly another chance to redraw the maps nor did it definitively say Plan 2-297 should be adopted. But of the thousands of maps in the record, it was the only one specifically mentioned.

The plan would upend North Carolina’s current congressional map — from flipping the numbering system (District 11 in far western North Carolina would become District 1) to re-ordering the political calculus across the state, again.

The 2016 maps were adopted after courts ruled the 2011 maps were unconstitutional because of racial gerrymandering. Now the 2016 maps have been declared unconstitutional due to partisan gerrymandering.

A change before November would mean different districts for the third consecutive election (2014, 2016 and 2018). The judges also did not rule out the possibility of holding primary elections in November and a general election sometime before Congress is seated in January.

“Most people, whether Republican or Democrat, would say, ‘Come on, guys,’ ” Walker said.

Walker’s district would have a 49.3-percent Republican vote share, according to Chen’s model. Holding’s would have a 47.4-percent Republican vote share.

Holding won re-election in 2016 with 56.7 percent of the vote. It was Holding’s first run in the 2nd District. He had previously represented the 13th District before redistricting.

“(Judge James A.) Wynn just dropped a bombshell in the middle of an election campaign,” said Carter Wrenn, Holding’s campaign manager. “Wynn is beginning to trouble me as being just as partisan as a judge as the legislators he criticizes for being too partisan.”

Chen’s map was drawn in 2017, but based on the criteria that was used to create the new 2016 maps which were drawn based on the 2014 delegation and where they lived at the time. So it includes former Rep. Renee Ellmers and does not include Rep. Ted Budd, who won his first term in 2016. Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat who represents Charlotte, moved to her district from near Greensboro after the 2016 maps were adopted.

Potentially flipping three Republican seats in North Carolina would be a boon for national Democrats, who are hoping to retake the House of Representatives in November. Democrats need a net gain of 23 additional seats in order to regain control of the House in November.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC