Rob Christensen

Christensen: NC population shifts highlight redistricting problem

This is no longer Mayberry.

The truth is, we haven’t been for some time. But the recession has accelerated the process of reshaping North Carolina.

The metropolitan areas are struggling to keep up with the fast-paced growth as they attract people from around the state and the country. Meanwhile, the countryside is emptying out, a sad panorama of empty store fronts and padlocked plant gates.

Since the 2010 census, about half of North Carolina’s 100 counties have lost population, said Allan Parnell, a demographer with the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities. He spoke at a forum last week at N.C. State University that was focused on the political process of drawing lawmakers’ district boundaries.

The county that has lost the most population was Rockingham County, home of Senate leader Phil Berger.

It is not only the tobacco-growing areas, Parnell said, but it is the old textile and furniture towns of the Piedmont and the west, that are suffering.

The state is projecting that by 2020, the state’s 50 smallest counties will have 13 percent of North Carolina’s population, while Wake and Mecklenburg counties alone will have more than 21 percent of the population.

It is easy to forget that Charlotte is now larger than Detroit, Seattle, Denver or Boston, and that Raleigh is now larger than Miami, Minneapolis, Cleveland or New Orleans.

That rapidly changing demographics has major implications when the legislature sits down in 2021 to draw the new district lines for Congress and the legislature. It is among the reasons that bipartisan groups are pushing for an independent redistricting effort.

North Carolina, now the 9th largest state, with nearly 10 million people, is expected to pick up a 14th congressional seat after redistricting, according to demographers.

The legislature will also have to do major redrawing of legislative lines because of the changing populations.

According to projections of demographers, there will be eight House districts that will have grown 40 percent since the last census – all of them in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas. They include the districts now represented by Wake County Reps. Paul Stam, Chris Malone, Marilyn Avila and Gale Adcock.

There will be six Senate districts with population projected to grow by at least 25 percent. Those include the districts now represented by Wake County senators Tamara Barringer, Chad Barefoot and Dan Blue.

This means that there will be shift of districts from the rural areas to the urban areas – cities and suburbs. The Senate districts in the rural areas will get larger, while urban Senate districts will get smaller.

An early projection of the growth is that after 2021 it will result in a 3 percent shift in the voter makeup in favor of the Democrats, according to Mark Nance, an N.C. State political scientist.

“That is not going to flip many districts at all,” Nance said. “But certainly if that trend continues up through 2030 then the impact could be quite substantial.”

So there may be few partisan advantages for a Republican-controlled legislature to move to an independent system of redistricting – similar to what 14 other states have done, including most recently Ohio.

But there are plenty of good government reasons, often expressed by lawmakers of both parties.

The political art of gerrymandering – perfected through the use of political software – has now made many general elections nearly irrelevant.

If you use the rule of thumb that a competitive race is one in which the victor wins between 50 to 55 percent, none of the state’s 13 congressional races were competitive in the last election. Only 18 of the 120 House districts and only seven of the 50 Senate districts were competitive, according to Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College.

As it now exists, the only thing most lawmakers have to worry about is being “primary-ied” – challenged from the right if they are Republicans, or attacked from the left if they are Democrats. This political environment discourages bipartisan compromise.

Such Soviet-style elections raise serious questions about the nature of our democracy.

Which is why the GOP-led House approved a redistricting reform bill in 2011, and a majority of House members sponsored a similar bill this year. But so far, the state Senate has been a graveyard for redistricting reform.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, robc@nando.com

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