Politics & Government

New maps would still give GOP disproportionate power in NC legislature, analysts say

The new political maps approved by the North Carolina General Assembly this week would likely still favor Republicans in the 2020 elections, numerous experts say.

The legislature was ordered to redraw a number of the districts used to elect its members earlier this month, after a panel of judges ruled the Republican-led legislature had violated voters’ constitutional rights with their 2017 maps. And those unconstitutional maps were themselves drawn to replace different maps, from 2011, that had also been ruled unconstitutional.

Every member of the state legislature is up for re-election every two years. And in 2018, the judges found, the majority of voters in North Carolina chose Democratic candidates — but Republicans won a majority of the seats at the legislature.

Under the new maps, if the judges approve them, a similar scenario could happen again in 2020.

“If you go back and analyze the maps, you can see the maps have a Republican bias,” said Sam Wang, a Princeton University neuroscience professor who is also a gerrymandering expert and leads the Princeton Election Consortium.

Wang said that with the way the new maps are drawn, the median district in both chambers of the legislature will be more Republican-leaning than North Carolina as a whole. That means if voters around the state are perfectly split in the 2020 elections — with half of people voting for Republican candidates and half voting for Democrats — then Republicans would be expected to win majorities in both legislative chambers.

Wang’s analysis specifically found that a 50-50 vote split in 2020 could lead to a 27-23 Republican majority in the Senate and a 68-52 Republican majority in the House.

Local experts also predict similar trends.

Currently, Republicans hold a 29-21 majority in the Senate and a 65-55 majority in the House.

Wang told The News & Observer that the new maps have less pro-Republican partisan bias than the old maps, but “on the other hand, they still have some partisanship.”

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the new maps — which still have to be approved by the judges who threw out the old maps — are also partisan gerrymanders.

Complicating matters is geography. North Carolina law says that counties, whenever possible, can’t be split up into multiple districts. That tends to help Republicans since many Republican voters are spread out in rural areas while many Democratic voters live in just a handful of the largest counties.

Republicans have strongly defended their new maps as being drawn without political data, and with the most transparency in state history. Tuesday night, after the House and Senate gave their final approval, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger issued a news release mocking the national Democratic activists who have looked at the likely partisan outcomes of the new districts in 2020 and criticized North Carolina lawmakers, Democrat and Republican alike, for approving them.

“National Democrats are freaking out about the North Carolina Senate adopting fair maps created through a transparent, bipartisan process,” Berger’s office wrote. “Why? Because their true goal is a Democratic judicial gerrymander that ensures a Democratic majority. It’s not about fair maps, and never has been.”

Competitive races in 2020?

An analysis by the NC Insider found the potential for Democrats to flip two Republican-held seats in the Senate in 2020 — one in south Charlotte, and one in north Raleigh — which would not be enough for Democrats to gain a majority.

It’s also possible, the Insider found, that Republicans could take back a Senate seat in Greensboro. Former Republican Sen. Trudy Wade was narrowly defeated in 2018 by Democratic Sen. Michael Garrett. But Wade lives in Garrett’s new district, and it’s expected to be a tossup in 2020.

The Insider’s analysis of the House maps similarly found that Republicans are likely to keep their majority in 2020 under the new maps. However, there are numerous districts that could be considered tossups under the new maps.

That would be a change from the current system, where many seats are relatively safe for one party or the other. Most of those newly competitive districts are currently held by Democrats, The Insider reported, but a few are held by Republicans.

The Triangle mostly won’t be affected by the new maps, since no House or Senate districts in Durham or Orange counties had to be redrawn. Wake County had to redraw only its Senate districts, since its House districts were redrawn earlier this year after the legislature lost a separate lawsuit after improperly redrawing some suburban Raleigh districts in advance of the 2018 elections.

Among the state’s largest areas, Greensboro and Charlotte, and their suburbs, probably will see the most changes should the judges approve the new maps.

Democratic losses in Charlotte?

Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, is one of the most prominent analysts of state politics. He dug deeper into Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte, which has five Senate seats and 12 House seats.

Democrats currently control 16 of those 17 seats. However, Bitzer’s analysis of the new maps shows that Democrats could lose several seats there in 2020 under the new maps, if results from the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections are repeated. While Democrats won all 12 Mecklenburg House seats in 2018, Bitzer said the redrawn maps include one district that leans Republican and three more that are tossups. All four are in the suburbs, mostly in southern Mecklenburg County.

Of course, the 2018 elections showed Democrats performing increasingly well in formerly Republican suburbs, partly as a backlash to Republican President Donald Trump, so it’s possible that the Charlotte suburbs could continue that leftward trend in 2020.

But just as using political data from different years might lead to different impressions, using different levels of Democratic and Republican support also show different scenarios.

While Wang’s analysis used a hypothetical 50-50 split in 2020 to find Republicans will come out with an advantage, a different analysis shows Republicans could elect even stronger majorities next year if Trump has a repeat performance of his 2016 victory here.

Stephen Wolf, a redistricting analyst for the liberal website Daily Kos, ran those numbers and said if North Carolina has a repeat of 2016, then under the new maps he expects Republicans to win a 28-22 majority in the Senate and a 72-48 supermajority in the House.

Wolf was among commentators on the left who criticized North Carolina Democrats in the Senate for mostly voting for the new maps. He wrote Tuesday that “many of the districts in both chambers still bear the signs of partisan gerrymandering, in violation of the court’s order.”

But Charlotte Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus defended her and her colleagues’ support of the Senate maps. (She voted against the House maps.) Voting ‘No’ for political reasons, she wrote on Twitter, would also have violated the court order that banned the use of political data and considerations in this process.

“We were forbidden to consider the kind of info you are relying on to criticize the map,” Marcus said.

Colin Campbell of the NC Insider contributed to this report.
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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.