After another disappointing showing in Charlotte elections, some Republicans are wondering whether their already long odds have been made longer by how Democrats have drawn City Council districts.
Have the Democrats drawn gerrymandered districts that limit them to two of seven district council seats, and only two of 11 seats overall?
Critics say the GOP won 41 percent of the mayoral vote, but only hold 28 percent of the council district seats. Two years ago, the Republican candidate won 48 percent of the mayoral vote, but the GOP was still limited to just two council seats.
A review of elections data, boundary maps and interviews with political experts suggest that the city could give the GOP a better chance to win a third council seat, but it would be extremely difficult to create a third “safe” Republican district.
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But shifting Republican voters into a toss-up district could have a boomerang effect: Moving Republicans into another district would make the GOP’s two safe seats more Democratic, making them more likely to flip to blue in the future.
“You probably can’t carve out (enough precincts) to make a true Republican third seat,” said Republican council member Kenny Smith, who lost the mayoral election to Democrat Vi Lyles earlier this month. “But I think you could create a third district that leans Republican.”
Last change in 2011
Since 1977, Charlotte has had seven districts and four council seats elected by the entire city.
City policy is that its seven council districts be roughly equal in population. If possible, they should follow neighborhood boundaries and precinct boundaries, and should avoid pitting two incumbents against each other.
For at least 20 years, Republicans have been complaining that Democrats have been drawing favorable boundaries for their party.
In 2001, Republicans urged Democrats to draw districts that would allow them to possibly win three instead of two district seats. But Democrats made south Charlotte’s District 6 more Republican, and approved a map that allowed them to continue winning five of seven district seats.
The last time council districts were significantly changed was in 2011, after the 2010 Census. At the time, the council had an 8-3 Democratic majority. Republicans held two of seven district seats, as they do today, and one at-large seat.
At the time, the Democratic council did not make significant changes to solidify their majority. Democrats only moved five precincts from one district to another district.
But they also ignored a proposal to give the Republicans a better chance at a third district seat.
Republican Edwin Peacock was the Republican at-large council member that year. He lobbied unsuccessfully to create a “toss-up” seat for District 5 in east Charlotte. His plan was to move some Republican-majority precincts along Randolph Road into the district.
District 5 had once been held by a Republican. But it’s been a safe Democratic seat since 1999, when Nancy Carter beat Republican incumbent Tim Sellers.
“It was a plea for fairness,” Peacock said. “I said, ‘Let’s make this a toss-up.’ But they just packed (Republican-strongholds) District 6 and more.”
(In reality, council members only moved one Republican-majority precinct into District 6 from District 5 that year.)
At the time, Republicans were 18 percent of District 5 voters, which would have made Peacock’s plan to create a toss-up seat a long-shot. But today less than 14 percent of District 5 voters are Republicans.
Smith said the Republicans’ weak showing isn’t a result of Democratic gerrymandering.
“The districts haven’t changed,” said Smith. “The city has changed.”
Republicans are now 21 percent of registered voters in the city. That’s down from 26 percent in 2010.
City Council must review its districts again after the 2020 Census.
Because districts must be more or less equal in population, the city will have to make some changes. District 5 in east Charlotte, where population growth has lagged, will likely need to absorb new precincts, for example.
If the GOP were to win another district seat, its best hope might be District 1, which covers uptown, Dilworth, Plaza Midwood and Eastway. Other than the two Republican safe seats, it’s the only district where Democrats have less than 50 percent of registered voters, with 48 percent.
When council has to shuffle precincts, the GOP could lobby to move some Republican-majority precincts in Myers Park and Foxcroft into District 1 and move out other Democratic-majority precincts.
Larry Shaheen, a Republican political consultant, said he thinks District 1 could be a toss-up district.
“It can be 50-50,” he said. “The problem today is there are no swing seats. There is no seat that’s competitive (outside of the party primaries).”
The Observer shifted 10 precincts in and out of District 1, which lowered the percent of Democrats from 48 percent to 40 percent.
But creating that toss-up district would require the approval of a Democratic council. It’s likely whoever holds that seat in 2021 would object. Democrat Larken Egleston defeated Democratic incumbent Patsy Kinsey in the primary, and he will be sworn in next month.
Could GOP lose another seat?
But creating a toss-up seat could create a new set of problems for the GOP. The party might lose one of its two safe seats.
District 6, which covers SouthPark, may need to absorb some Democratic-leaning precincts along South Boulevard after the 2020 Census. Bringing in hundreds of more Democratic voters could make the District 6 seat a toss-up in the next decade.
In 2010, 39.4 percent of registered voters in District 6 were Republicans. Today that’s fallen to 35 percent. (There are also fewer Democrats, as well, from 33.3 percent to 31 percent).
District 7, which covers Ballantyne and areas south of N.C. 51, has also seen the number of Republicans drop. In 2010, 43.2 percent of registered voters were Republicans. That’s fallen to 37 percent.
(Democratic registration has essentially stayed the same, declining from 26.5 percent to 26 percent.)
Democratic political consultant Dan McCorkle said he thinks the GOP should worry about losing District 7 in the next decade.
“If I’m a Republican, that’s the one I would try to hold onto,” he said.
McCorkle pointed to precinct 148, which votes at Community House Middle at the far southern tip of the county.
In the mayor’s race, Smith only defeated Democrat Vi Lyles by 30 votes – 1,071 to 1,041 votes.
Eight years ago, in a competitive mayor’s race won by Democrat Anthony Foxx, Republican John Lassiter crushed Foxx in the same precinct. He had 851 votes to Foxx’s 469.
“You have folks relocating here from other areas of the country,” Smith said. “They are coming from blue states and bringing their voting habits.”
McCorkle thinks Republicans should stop complaining about how council maps are drawn.
“This year they ran eight conservative men in a city that’s not conservative,” he said.