Gerrymandering Deep Dive: North Carolina

An elephant wearing a suit pushing a lawn mower into a gerrymandered state of North Carolina

Redistricting and gerrymandering as concepts can sometimes feel abstract. It’s a topic littered with jargony words like “cracking” and “packing” as well as statistical concepts like the efficiency gap. It’s easy to get lost in all the complicated jurisprudence and lose sight of the fact that gerrymandering holds substantial negative consequences for average people.

To make the consequences of gerrymandering more tangible, today’s piece looks at its impact on North Carolina, which is widely considered one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. We survey the state’s long history with the practice, how it impacts everyday North Carolinians and what we can learn from the state’s experience.

North Carolina has an extensive record of gerrymandering.

Since the 1990s, North Carolina has been considered one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. In 1991, when the state submitted its congressional plan to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for approval under the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, the DOJ rejected the initial proposal and asked the state to create a second majority-minority district to ensure that Black voters had adequate voting strength in the state. In response, the state reconfigured the newly-established 12th Congressional District. The resulting district famously snaked over 160 miles across the state from Charlotte to Durham to join together as many Black voters as possible.

The 12th Congressional District and the similarly contorted 1st Congressinal District were challenged in court. The ensuing litigation eventually resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Shaw v. Reno, which found that racial gerrymanders like the then-current iterations of the 1st and 12th Congressional Districts can, in certain circumstances, violate the U.S. Constitution. Shaw v. Reno eventually led the state to redraw its congressional districts in 1997; the new districts were again challenged in court and were redrawn a second time. While the state’s redistricting plan after the 2000 census survived scrutiny, this would not be the end of gerrymandering litigation in North Carolina.

Republicans gerrymandered North Carolina after the 2010 elections.

In the 2010 elections, the Republican Party won control of the North Carolina General Assembly for the first time in over a hundred years. This gave the party complete control over the redrawing of North Carolina’s congressional and state legislative districts, as then-Gov. Bev Perdue (D) did not have the power to veto redistricting plans passed by the General Assembly.

Republicans used this ability to draw maps to maximize their advantage in the state. While North Carolina’s congressional delegation prior to the 2011 redistricting cycle was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, the 2012 elections (the first under the new map) led to a 4-9 split in favor of Republicans, which became a 3-10 split by 2015. The congressional plan heavily concentrated Democratic voters in the 1st, 4th and 12th Congressional Districts, ensuring Democratic candidates would win these districts by lopsided margins while Republicans won the remaining 10 with smaller, though still safe, numbers.

In 2016, the 1st and the 12th Congressional Districts were again ruled unconstitutional racial gerrymanders by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. The decision, eventually upheld by the Supreme Court in Cooper v. Harris, forced the state GOP to craft a new congressional map in time for the November 2016 elections. This time, rather than using racial data in drawing districts, the General Assembly opted to use partisan data instead, with Rep. David H. Lewis (R) openly stating he thought “electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats” and that he “drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

The new districts were considerably more compact than the old ones, with the infamous 12th Congressional District now concentrated entirely in Mecklenburg County. The partisan split, however, remained the same. These districts are a good example of how even clean-looking districts can constitute a gerrymander. In particular, the new map divided many of North Carolina’s most populous (and Democratic) counties across multiple districts, with Wake County (the state’s second largest) and Guilford (the third largest) split between two districts.

The new maps spurred another round of litigation, this time based on claims of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. A case in the federal courts, Rucho v. Common Cause, eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that partisan gerrymandering represents a political question beyond the reach of federal courts. However, Rucho still left the door open to legal challenges based on North Carolina’s state constitution. In late 2019, a state appeals court found that the partisan gerrymander violated the state constitution’s guarantee of free elections, leading the General Assembly to draw congressional districts a third time — without the use of racial or partisan data. The new districts, which will only be in effect from 2021 to 2023, immediately led to Democrats easily flipping two GOP-held seats in 2020.

Gerrymandering negatively impacts political representation, divides communities and warps national politics.

Effects on political representation:

The most obvious negative impact of gerrymandering in North Carolina is that it deprived many of the state’s voters of a voice in Congress. Voters in North Carolina consistently vote for Democrats and Republicans in near-equal margins; yet until the Republican gerrymander was finally undone in 2019, the state sent a lopsided congressional delegation of 10 Republicans and three Democrats election after election no matter how the state’s residents actually voted. Democrats were not getting the representation they would earn under a fairer map, and as a result their views and preferences were not getting represented in national policy making. 

Even in the Democratic wave election of 2018, when Democrats won unlikely victories in conservative states like Oklahoma and South Carolina, North Carolina’s partisan gerrymander held firm. The same three districts elected Democrats and the same 10 districts elected Republicans despite Democrats winning 48.5% of the statewide vote. By creating a preordained outcome, the state GOP deprived voters of any meaningful influence in the election — robbing them of the most fundamental way they can participate in American democracy. As a state court in North Carolina found in its 2019 decision against the most recent partisan gerrymander, North Carolinians did not have “the opportunity to participate in congressional elections conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the people.”

Effects on communities, particularly minority communities:

On a more granular level, the Republican gerrymander of North Carolina split apart communities and made it more difficult for them to advocate for themselves. There may be no better example of this than the case of the city of Greensboro under the GOP’s 2016 map.

Greensboro is North Carolina’s third largest city and has become a Democratic stronghold. Guilford County (which contains Greensboro) is home to approximately 500,000 people, more than enough to be the core of its own congressional district. Yet the 2016 map split Guilford and Greensboro between the 6th and 13th Congressional Districts, joining the Democratic city with several rural and overwhelmingly Republican counties to essentially cancel out the city’s vote. The result deprived Greensboro of the ability to elect a representative in line with the preferences of the majority of its residents. Rep. Ted Budd (R), first elected in 2016 from the 13th Congressional District, won less than 40% of the vote in the Guilford portion of his district, yet still managed to win thanks to overwhelming support in the district’s more rural counties.

Dividing Greensboro also served to dilute the influence of the city’s Black population. For example, the campus of North Carolina A&T State University, the largest historically-Black university by enrollment in the country, was literally divided in two to reduce the political power of its students. As a result, the Black community in the city was represented by two members of Congress who supported policies, like repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, that were deeply unpopular with the community. 

Effects on national politics:

North Carolina’s Republican gerrymander also had an impact outside of the state’s borders. The gerrymander artificially reduced Democrats’ ranks in Congress throughout the decade, making it harder for the party to win control of the House or effectively advocate for its policy goals. The undoing of the gerrymander in 2019 likewise also had national implications. Had the old map been in effect in North Carolina in 2020, and if mid-decade redistricting hadn’t been ordered in response to partisan and racial gerrymandering in Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia, Democrats would have lost control of the House. Gerrymandering doesn’t just have implications for the state in question — it affects us all.

North Carolina’s redistricting saga underscores the need for a national solution to gerrymandering.

North Carolina’s experience over the last decade demonstrates exactly what the costs of gerrymandering are. It deprives citizens of their voice in our democracy and dilutes the power of distinct communities to advocate for their interests. It’s not just some other twist in partisan competition for political power — gerrymandering strikes at the very heart of what American democracy is supposed to be about.

North Carolina also demonstrates the costs of federal inaction on gerrymandering. Even though its GOP gerrymanders were eventually overturned, this process took years. For the majority of the last decade, North Carolina had unconstitutional congressional districts; the irreparable harm this inflicted on its residents cannot be calculated. While the courts, as they did in North Carolina, can in some circumstances provide an important bulwark against extreme gerrymandering, the best solution is a proactive ban on partisan gerrymanders so they can’t even go into effect in the first place. That’s why it’s critical that Senate Democrats pass the Freedom to Vote Act to put an end to this nefarious practice once and for all.