All across North Carolina, and especially in the bigger cities and suburbs, invisible lines weave their way through neighborhoods and highways and college campuses.
Politicians decide the lines. And the lines decide who gets to vote for which politicians.
In the process known as gerrymandering, the drawing of these lines give some voters more political power and others less. News & Observer reporters interviewed people in three communities on the losing end of that equation.
“People don’t feel like they’re represented, to the point where they don’t even want to vote anymore,” said Cedric Harrison, a 30-year-old Wilmington native who lives on the edge of one controversial district there.
Most people rarely or never think about the state’s political lines. But for some, especially in places where a history of racial violence has left deep scars, they are seen as just the latest way for those in power to oppress black voters.
The lines are once again under review by a court. Legal challengers aren’t accusing the state’s Republican-led legislature of drawing the maps to specifically disenfranchise African Americans; challengers already won lawsuits on those grounds, which led to the current maps. Instead, the new lawsuits say the rights of Democratic voters at large are being infringed upon.
But it can be hard to separate politics and race in 21st century America. Nationwide, about nine in every 10 black voters is a Democrat or leans Democrat. And in North Carolina, black voters make up roughly half of all Democrats.
Concerns about government power being used to aid racism run deep in a state like North Carolina, where schools didn’t fully comply with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court mandate for desegregation for nearly 20 years, where Jim Crow-era literacy tests remain enshrined in the state constitution to this day, and where a voter ID law from as recently as 2013 was struck down in federal court for targeting “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
A century ago Wilmington, N.C., witnessed what’s thought to be the only coup d’etat in U.S. history, when a white supremacist mob overthrew the multi-racial city council and killed dozens of black residents in an attack that was never punished.
Today, all of Wilmington and the rest of New Hanover County are in a single state Senate district, except for a heavily African-American area just south of downtown. Those homes were carved out and placed into a different district, which is mostly made up of suburbs, beach towns and rural farming communities in Bladen, Brunswick and Pender counties.
This slice of Wilmington is home to several thousand people — not insignificant, but also not enough to make a difference in a state Senate district home to about 200,000 people.
When state Sen. Bill Rabon won a fifth term last year with nearly 59% of the vote, fewer than 100 of his votes came from his slice of Wilmington. He has represented that part of Wilmington since after his 2012 re-election. He was unopposed in 2016, but in 2012, 2014 and 2018, more than 90% of his Wilmington constituents voted against him.
Yet in the time Rabon has represented part of Wilmington, the city has gotten its share of attention at the legislature. State lawmakers have in recent years spent millions of dollars on Wilmington issues, like the port and efforts to study and combat pollution in the Cape Fear River. And while Rabon isn’t the only lawmaker who represents Wilmington, he has sponsored some major bills that affected the area.
According to at least one recent study, opioid abuse is worse in Wilmington than anywhere else in America. Rabon was a lead sponsor of the bipartisan STOP Act, an effort to tackle the opioid crisis around the state. In an email, Rabon’s office said he has also worked to increase funding for the Fort Fisher aquarium, protect state support for the local film industry and speed up construction of the I-140 bypass around Wilmington. And during the time Rabon has represented Wilmington, the state government has sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to local Wilmington charities, ranging from animal rescues to the arts and the local Boys and Girls Club.
“Population requirements under the federal and state constitutions require that Sen. Rabon’s district include some portion of New Hanover County,” Rabon’s office said in an email. “Given that reality, Sen. Rabon says his goal is to serve his constituents in New Hanover County with the same diligence that he serves the rest of his district.”
But Harrison, who is African American, said it’s not lost on people in the area that the candidate they’re voting against in droves wins anyway. Many of the older folks in Wilmington’s black community are still politically active, he said, but younger people like himself often don’t vote.
“It’s like they feel like either person that wins the seat isn’t going to have their best interest in the decisions that they make anyway,” Harrison said. “And it almost seems to reflect in a lot of the candidate’s campaigns. As you can see, they don’t really reach out and really take the extra step to really get into those neighborhoods and really get to those people’s problems to see how they could actually help address those issues from the seat that they sit in.”
Not everyone agrees that gerrymandering leads to less responsive politicians. Republican Sen. Danny Britt said his district looks tough for Republicans on paper — but that just makes him work harder. Britt represents a district in Robeson and Columbus counties that neighbors Rabon’s district.
Robeson is one of the most diverse counties not just in North Carolina but in the country, with black, white and Native American residents each making up about a third of the population. Britt said about two-thirds of the people in his district are Democrats, but he has nevertheless been able to defeat well-known local Democrats in two Senate races now.
In 2018, when Hurricane Florence slammed Lumberton only two months before the elections, Britt temporarily suspended his campaign to help with hurricane relief instead. Britt later aired a TV ad showing him stacking sandbags and steering a boat past flooded homes. He says that helped him win re-election, despite his break from fundraising and despite running in a largely Democratic area, because people respected his work ethic.
“I think that the right candidate can win almost anywhere,” he said. “Now I think there are some districts that are almost impossibly drawn. But there are some districts that have been almost impossibly drawn by both parties. Our constitution says that the districts are drawn by the General Assembly. Until the people decide they want it to be done a different way, then that’s the way it should be done.”
Democrats, Republicans drew contorted maps
Another gerrymandered dividing line runs through the heart of N.C. A&T University in Greensboro. Under congressional maps, used to determine who represents North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives, the university is split in two.
A&T is the largest of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, whose students helped spark the civil rights movement in 1960 with a multi-day sit-in at the “whites-only” lunch counter at a Woolworth’s department store.
Those sit-ins later spread to nearby High Point, where they’re now memorialized downtown near the statue honoring John Coltrane, the jazz legend who grew up there when it was still segregated. And High Point is now home to another gerrymandered district whose jagged boundaries show careful attention was paid to which neighborhoods would be included.
State Senate lines separate High Point from the rest of the Greensboro metro area and instead group it with rural Randolph County. Aside from the urban-rural divide between the two areas, there’s also a racial one. More than one-third of High Point residents are black, compared to about 6% in Randolph County.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why did we write this story?
Gerrymandering is a complicated topic, but at its most basic level it affects people’s lives because of the way the lines can be used to all but ensure an area will vote for one party’s candidate or another.
Supporters of gerrymandering say it’s always been part of the political spoils of war, and it wouldn’t make sense for them not to do everything possible to help their party stay in power. Opponents of gerrymandering say it lets politicians pick their voters, instead of the other way around, and that it discourages political compromises since elections in heavily gerrymandered districts are often won in the primaries, which encourages politicians to play to their base rather than to moderates.
In this story, we wanted to look at the neighborhood-level effects of gerrymandering and how regular people feel about how the system treats them.
The district’s state senator, Jerry Tillman, defends the use of gerrymandering to help Republicans like him. Democrats, he said, did the same thing for the 112 years they controlled one or both chambers of the General Assembly, up until Republicans took control in 2011.
“Gerrymandering is the law of the land and the law says the prevailing party draws the maps,” Tillman said. “It doesn’t say you draw them to help the other side.”
The lines in Greensboro are here to stay, since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld them and other parts of the state’s U.S. congressional maps this summer. But the lines in Wilmington and High Point are part of a separate lawsuit, in the state courts, which has not yet been decided.
Republicans are the ones being sued now, since they’re in charge of drawing the maps. But historically, neither side is blameless.
Redistricting happens every 10 years using newly available Census data. And in North Carolina, as in other states, the redistricting process has frequently violated legal protections for minorities.
The maps drawn by Democrats in 1981, 1991 and 2001 were all struck down in court for racial reasons. So too were the maps drawn by Republicans in 2011.
Sometimes the courts have struck down the state’s maps for splitting up black voters into too many districts, so that their voting power is too diluted. That’s what happened in the 1980s case, Thornburg v. Gingles, which has had major national repercussions. A 2015 scholarly article said it “led to the transformation of representation at every level of government, compelling the creation of districts from which racial minorities could elect their preferred candidates.”
But after that ruling, the state sometimes went too far in the other direction, packing too many black voters into too few districts. The court has also ruled against that; it’s what led to the downfall of the unconstitutional 2011 maps, for instance.
Republican Rep. David Lewis is a key figure in crafting North Carolina’s 2011 maps as well as the maps in place now that were drawn in 2016 and 2017. He defended the legislature’s work in a recent article for The Atlantic, which he co-authored with his fellow Republican, Sen. Ralph Hise.
“Having successfully litigated against the Democratic majority under a racial gerrymander claim a decade before, legislative Republicans understood well the power of lawsuits to dismantle preferred maps,” Lewis and Hise wrote of the 2011 maps. “And so we set out to avoid losing the same sorts of racial gerrymander lawsuits as defendants that we had won years earlier as plaintiffs. According to federal Judge Roger Gregory, we actually tried too hard.”
Racial politics below the surface
In some of the neighborhoods that have been carved up by the newest maps, racial politics lie just below the surface.
After the Civil War, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina, and had a majority-black population with a booming middle class. Former slaves moved to the port city with their families, started businesses and elected a multi-racial city council.
But a generation later, in 1898, federal troops had ended their post-war occupation and white supremacist politicians were back on the rise. With the support of the state’s powerful Democratic Party machine and newspapers including The News & Observer — whose leaders have since apologized — a former Confederate officer and US Congressman named Alfred Waddell marched on Wilmington with a mob of 2,000 like-minded men.
They overthrew the town council and made Waddell the new mayor. They killed dozens of black people — perhaps more — and forced countless others to flee.
Waddell’s coup happened right after the 1898 elections. A few days prior, the historian Timothy Tyson wrote for the N&O in a 2006 accounting of the attacks, Waddell gave a speech in which he told those present, “If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”
Last year, 120 years after the massacre, the State of North Carolina put up a new plaque in Wilmington acknowledging the violence. It’s on Market Street, between 4th Street and 5th Avenue, the very site where the attacks began all those years ago, on the edge of a large neighborhood where many of Wilmington’s black residents live.
The plaque itself is on a street corner represented in the state Senate by a Democrat, Harper Peterson. If you walk a block or two to the east or the south — away from downtown and further into the neighborhood — you’ll be in a district represented by a Republican, Rabon.
Peterson, a former Wilmington mayor and rookie legislator, defeated Republican incumbent Michael Lee in 2018. Rabon, a veterinarian from Southport in Brunswick County, has been a state senator for a decade. He is one of the most important people at the legislature, as chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee.
Wilmington today remains somewhat segregated, with many of its black residents living in neighborhoods directly to the north and to the south of the main downtown strip. It’s the southern neighborhoods, or at least parts of them, that are separated from the rest of town by gerrymandering.
There you’ll find weather-beaten homes, barber shops and churches, and The Wilmington Journal, which was founded to serve the local black community in 1901 — three years after the previous black-owned newspaper, The Daily Record, was burned down during the coup.
For the state Senate, New Hanover County has to be split in two, no matter what, because of how many people live there. But Peterson questions why Republicans chose to split off a heavily black area inside city limits instead of the northern parts of New Hanover County outside the city, which has more in common with the areas of Bladen, Pender and Brunswick counties that make up the rest of Rabon’s district.
“These are people I should be representing,” Peterson said of the city neighborhoods. “They have common concerns with the rest of the district, but they’re being shut out.”
They ‘don’t even have to care’
In the state’s furniture capital, a diverse blue-collar town, state Senate maps cut in and out of High Point to separate most of it from the rest of Guilford County.
Those lines pair High Point with Randolph County, home of the state zoo, to its southeast. When those lines were challenged at the state-level gerrymandering trial In July, local Democratic activist Joshua “Fox” Brown was asked to testify about the impact of those lines.
The lines seem drawn “to reduce the odds of the surrounding districts to elect a Democrat,” Brown said at trial, explaining that Democratic voters in the southwestern part of Guilford County were picked up by the zig-zagging lines, then lumped into overwhelmingly conservative Randolph County.
Tillman, a retired teacher and school administrator, has been in the state Senate for nearly 20 years, always representing Randolph County. He also used to represent parts of Moore County. But that changed before the 2018 elections, when his district morphed to include include High Point, due to a court striking down the previous lines as unconstitutional.
High Point voters generally oppose Tillman, but that did not threaten his re-election. In 2018, Tillman received less than 27% of votes in the Guilford County areas of his district but still won with nearly 65% of the overall vote.
In an interview after the trial, Brown — who’s politically active and is currently running for a seat on the town council — said that’s concerning for him and his neighbors.
“I think we as a city really just get lip service from him because he doesn’t have to care about the votes from High Point to win his seat,” Brown said.
Tillman, however, defended his and his Republican colleagues’ record.
The fact that Republicans were able to overcome maps gerrymandered by Democrats to take the majority in the 2010 elections, he said, shows that Republicans simply have a better platform that resonates with more voters — and that gerrymandering isn’t some all-powerful tool, either.
“You think Democrats didn’t do the same thing? They did for over a hundred years,” Tillman said. “But they got so bad that the maps we won on were Democrat-drawn maps.”
In part because the city extends into multiple counties, it’s not just Tillman’s district that carves up High Point. Numerous state lawmakers represent parts of it. And because voters are so split up, Brown said, it’s hard to get support for things people in the city might want — like Medicaid expansion, a higher minimum wage, or simply more state spending directed to their needs.
“These issues are not being dealt with in Raleigh and the representatives we have sent there don’t even have to care about a city like High Point because their districts are so safe,” he said. “They aren’t even competitive.”
The line that divides a college
Through the floor-to-ceiling window at the Gate City Barbershop in Greensboro, Thomas Stevens can look outside and see one of the most controversial congressional borders in the country.
It runs along Market Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, and then turns right onto Laurel Street, the line that splits in half the North Carolina A&T campus.
Stevens, 50, who cuts hair for a living and follows politics, looked out that window on a recent afternoon, hot enough so that the sidewalks were empty. He asked the question, to no one in particular, that a lot of people have been asking in this community, for years: “How you gonna divide a campus in half, you know?”
The barbershop where Stevens works is in North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, represented by Ted Budd, a Republican who won the 2018 election by about 17,000 votes. Outside of the state’s 9th district, where revelations of ballot tampering and fraud nullified the results, leading to a new election, the 13th was North Carolina’s most closely-contested in 2018.
Across the street from the barbershop, about a 30-second walk away, is the state’s 6th district, where Mark Walker, another Republican, won in 2018 by about 37,000 votes. Budd and Walker each represent half of Greensboro: Walker the parts north and east, Budd the parts south and west – with the dividing line slicing through the heart of a prominent African-American community.
“You want me to be real with you?” Stevens asked, sitting in his barber chair. “It’s racist.”
Walk north along Laurel Street and the divide becomes more clear: Bluford Library on the right, in the 6th district, across the street from Hodgin Hall, in the 13th, with the line extending north, dividing academic buildings, dorms and dining halls.
“It doesn’t look natural at all,” Love Caesar, a senior at North Carolina A&T, said during a recent interview inside of the university’s sparkling new student union. In front of her was a map of the congressional districts, a bold line through the middle. “Like, how is that a good drawing of a district?”
Caesar, who is double-majoring in history and political science, arrived at North Carolina A&T with a keen interest, already, in the district line running through campus. Her older sister also attended the university, and worked with Common Cause, the advocacy group that is fighting to end gerrymandering. Caesar then followed her sister into working with Common Cause.
During her years on campus, she said, she has given public speeches and also tried to raise awareness, in quieter ways, about the district maps. Before the 2018 election, she said, she and others walked around campus at night, writing messages in chalk on the sidewalks informing students which districts they were in.
For years now, Caesar and other activists have been speaking out about the division of campus. Caesar acknowledged she has noticed a bit of apathy set in, a sense of resignation.
The university community is predominantly African-American. Had the area remained unified, Caesar said, “our voice could be really powerful. We could send shock waves with our votes here.”
“But the fact that our campus is divided — it’s really disheartening to know that half of our campus goes to one representative and half goes to another representative,” she said.
A&T’s voters overwhelmingly chose Democrats in 2018. Precinct G68, which includes the part of the campus that votes for the 6th district, voted 98% for Walker’s opponent, Ryan Watts. Precinct G67, which includes the part of campus that votes for the 13th district, voted 97% for Budd’s opponent, Kathy Manning.
Jack Minor, a spokesman for Rep. Walker, defended Walker’s commitment to serving the A&T campus community. Minor said it was not in Walker’s interest to discuss gerrymandering, broadly, because he didn’t have any control over the district lines.
Instead, Minor emailed nearly a dozen accounts — news media stories, press releases, Twitter posts — that he said reflected Walker’s dedication to his constituents, and in particular to HBCUs like A&T. One of those stories detailed Walker’s appearance, in 2018, at the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus Foundation’s scholarship banquet benefiting HBCUs.
Walker delivered the keynote address, and became the first Republican in the 32-year history of the event to be invited to speak. After Walker’s speech, the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus Foundation presented him with an award “in appreciation for all your support to NC HBCUs.”
Walker, who lives in Greensboro, entered politics in 2014 after 16 years as a Baptist minister. Despite his lack of political experience, he won election to Congress in 2014 by nearly 40,000 votes. In a recent interview — not about gerrymandering, but the importance of community engagement — Walker emphasized the importance of relationship-building among minority constituents.
“We try to make an extended effort of being in places when we’re not the featured speaker, in a supportive role,” said Walker, who referenced a Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast with 103 tables where he sat at table 103. “Paying those dues. We’re not going to win everybody, but people will eventually appreciate that engagement.”
Walker said it is important to make those connections before politicians come asking for votes.
“Most of the attempts are after someone becomes a politician or after someone becomes an elected official. It already taints it.”
Back on campus, Caesar said cutting the potential voting power of the A&T campus in half is but one problem. Another is that the border has created confusion about which district is which. Caesar said despite the efforts to inform them, some of her classmates were unsure about which district they lived in, or where to vote.
“Mainly students who were turned around by it when they go to vote,” she said, “are the students who had to switch dorms between the year or semester, and they don’t know that they’ve had to change their polling place because they’ve changed their residence location.”
Walker won his district’s seat relatively comfortably in 2018. He had the fourth-largest margin among North Carolina’s eight districts in which Republicans won contested elections. Budd’s race in the 13th district was considerably closer. It’s possible that, had the border of the 13th been slightly different — if it extended east to include all of A&T’s campus, and other parts surrounding it — the result might have been different.
As it is, though, Greensboro, a city with a large African-American population, and one with a rich civil rights history, is represented by two white Republicans in Congress.
Like a lot of people in the A&T community, Caesar closely followed the recent U.S. Supreme Court case that addressed gerrymandering — a case that advocates hoped would force North Carolina’s congressional maps, among others, to be redrawn.
In March, just before the court heard arguments in the case, Caesar gave a speech in front of Gibbs Hall, which is in the 13th district, right on the line. She attempted to rally students to follow the case. Some local television stations came out to interview her, and Caesar said she told anyone who’d listen “about how gerrymandering disenfranchises students at A&T.”
But the court essentially passed on the issue, and left the drawing of congressional district maps up to the state.
The ruling deflated Caesar and others on campus.
“I was very unhappy,” she said. “I was really mad when I actually found out about the ruling. … I didn’t know what to say. But at this point, I’m really still disheartened, still feeling like representatives don’t really care how their constituents feel.
“Because they’re, at this point, choosing who they want to represent. And it doesn’t seem like a good example of what a democracy should be like. And so the students at A&T have not chosen their representatives. And the representatives that we do have don’t care what their constituents think.”
Even so, Caesar said, she still remains hopeful that eventually the districts will be redrawn, that her campus will be whole again. She has taken some inspiration from the university’s past, and particularly from the A&T Four — the four freshmen who in 1960 started a nationwide movement with the sit-ins they organized at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro.
It all happened not far from a campus now cut in half in an effort, critics believe, clearly meant to silence the power of black voters. After the loss in the Supreme Court, Caesar said she came to realize that “maybe we weren’t loud enough.”