State Politics

Experiment shows ‘better way’ for voting districts

These maps show how two congressional districts looked in North Carolina before this year, when a three-judge federal panel ruled they were illegal racial gerrymanders.
These maps show how two congressional districts looked in North Carolina before this year, when a three-judge federal panel ruled they were illegal racial gerrymanders. Raleigh

Retired state judges and justices who experimented with drawing the state’s congressional districts without regard to voters’ party registration have produced a plan that creates a few districts where candidates of either party would have a chance to win.

The redistricting simulation, a project of Duke University and Common Cause North Carolina, aims to show one way the state’s 13 congressional districts could look if drawn without political considerations. It includes six likely Republican districts, four likely Democratic districts and three toss-ups, the sponsors said.

The experiment produced results strikingly different from the districts legislators approved this year. Legislative Republicans drew the existing congressional map to elect 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats. No district is considered competitive.

Common Cause is suing over the current congressional map, claiming that extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution.

The redistricting exercise with Duke is separate from the lawsuit, said Common Cause North Carolina executive director Bob Phillips. The group will use the map “to help the public understand there is a better way,” he said. “This experiment is a good demonstration on how it can be done.”

Common Cause has pushed for years for a law establishing an independent redistricting commission, but has never had a bill pass both House and Senate. The legislature must draw new congressional and legislative districts at least once every decade, and the party in power uses redistricting to protect or expand its majority.


The state’s voting districts face near-constant legal challenges. This year, federal judges have declared congressional and legislative districts unconstitutional. Wake County commissioner and school board districts the legislature drew were also declared unconstitutional this year.

The congressional primary was delayed this year when the legislature was forced to redraw the 13 districts after a federal court declared two of them unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. Ballots were already printed for the March 15 statewide primary, but votes in congressional races didn’t count. Legislators rescheduled the congressional primary for June and canceled the runoff.

“One of the things we’re seeing across the state is people are getting tired of elections that don’t count,” said Rhonda Billings, a former state Supreme Court chief justice. “I think the public is going to be a little more aware of this problem now.”

County divisions appear to be less chaotic. Wake County is still divided between two districts, but one of them is contained within county borders. No counties are split among more than two districts, and the plan has no split precincts.

Ten retired judges and justices worked on the map, said Tom Ross, former UNC system president and Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke.

No district was drawn to favor a political party, he said, and incumbency was disregarded. District boundaries were to coincide with city and county boundaries, with few county divisions, and the districts were to be reasonably compact.

When map was nearly done, staff members “tweaked” the plan to make districts comply with the Voting Rights Act, Ross said.

“We show a way of doing it that is fair to everyone,” he said.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner