A pair of new studies showing how North Carolina’s rapid and unbalanced population growth is skewing voting districts has bolstered the hopes of some advocates of non-partisan redistricting.
The demographic studies show that urban areas continue to outpace rural ones, while suburbs become more diverse and minority populations grow disproportionately faster than whites.
By potentially making elections more volatile, the rapid changes could result in electoral surprises by the time the next redistricting starts in 2021.
“The word that everybody is using is ‘uncertainty’,” says Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. “What we’re trying to tell folks is that redistricting reform is the insurance policy that both parties need.”
Phillips and other reform advocates argue that state lawmakers from both parties have drawn voting districts to protect their own personal or partisan interests. They favor some form of independent redistricting where politics is less important than factors like compactness and geographic logic.
Critics point to this month’s candidate filing. A third of all state lawmakers face no opposition in 2016. More than a dozen more have no opponent after the March 15 primary.
In North Carolina, partisan redistricting has led to near-constant litigation.
Redistrictings that followed the 1980 and 1990 censuses went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The 2001 redistricting passed in and out of state courts until 2009.
Though the N.C. Supreme Court upheld the 2011 districts on Dec. 18, separate challenges are still pending in federal court.
“There really is this pattern of decade-long litigation of the redistricting plans since the 1980s,” says Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and a veteran of voting litigation who’s challenging the current districts.
Growth skews districts
The demographic studies, by the nonprofit Cedar Grove Institute for Sustained Communities and by the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, show how population changes are altering voting districts.
No Senate district in the state saw more growth than District 41, which covers northern and eastern Mecklenburg County. Its population grew by 28,600 since 2010, an increase of 15.7 percent.
And no House district in the state grew faster than District 92 in west Mecklenburg. It grew by more than 19 percent between 2010 and 2014, adding nearly 15,200 new residents. At the same time other, more rural districts are losing population. That means some lawmakers represent thousands more people than others.
The next redistricting won’t happen until after the 2020 census. Until then, the state and its urban areas will just continue to grow.
Demographer Allan Parnell of the Cedar Grove Institute says North Carolina’s 50 smallest counties will have just 13 percent the state’s population by 2020. Mecklenburg and Wake counties together will claim 21 percent.
Meanwhile, minority populations are growing faster than whites. The median age of white residents in 2013 was 42, Parnell found. For African-Americans the median age was 34.2. For Hispanics it was 24.4.
And aging baby boomers may have different values than the generation before them.
“Are the ‘new’ old people going to vote like the old, old people?” he says. “Issues like that add to the uncertainty.”
Eventually such changes could influence elections.
“The demographic trends arguably favor Democrats, so that they could … lead Republicans to believe their majority is at enough risk where they’d be better off having districts drawn by a non-partisan commission,” said Rep. Grier Martin, a Wake County Democrat.
Chances for change
It was a Republican-controlled House that passed redistricting reform earlier this decade, only to watch it die in the Senate. Republican Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County, who supports reform, says a lot would have to happen if lawmakers were to approve it by the time they redraw districts again after the 2020 census.
“If there’s a year before the election of 2020 when all sides are uncertain who will win the election, that’s when you’re going to have your best chance of passing a non-partisan redistricting,” Stam says. “But 2020 is too far away for anybody to predict.”
Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at N.C. State, says by essentially disenfranchising one party’s voters, partisan districts make lawmakers accountable to their own party, and particularly the activists who vote in primaries.
“The parties under partisan gerrymandering become more extreme,” Taylor says.
Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican who represents the state’s fastest-growing House district, says, “When legislators are only accountable to their party primary electorate, you don’t have a true democracy.”
“Until and unless we do (non-partisan redistricting) we’re going to continue to have this hyper-partisan bickering that we’re seeing in Washington that we’re seeing in Raleigh.”
Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican who co-chairs a group called North Carolinians to End Gerrymandering Now, says some lawmakers in his party are reluctant to change the rules after Democrats used them to their advantage for decades.
He has two arguments for opponents.
“One, the pendulum will swing back – self-preservation,” he says. “The other reason is it’s just a fairer system.”