The latest wrangling over the shape of North Carolina’s congressional districts begs a question: What would colorblind, party-blind districts actually look like?
As it turns out, we asked the same question 20 years ago. And came up with an answer.
The occasion was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 ruling that threw out the 12th District, which then ran through Charlotte from Gaston to Durham counties. It said race couldn’t be the “dominant and controlling” factor in drawing district lines.
This month a panel of federal judges again declared the 12th District (as well as the 1st in eastern North Carolina) unconstitutional, saying lawmakers put too much emphasis on race. Deja vu all over again.
So in 1996, we drew our own maps, putting a premium only on compactness and preserving county lines whenever possible.
I sat down at a General Assembly computer with a legislative analyst. Moving from west to east, we grouped counties as compactly as possible and accommodated population variances with a zig here or a zag there. Then we looked at the results.
To achieve virtually identical populations in each district, the existing plan split 44 counties and scores of precincts across the state. Ours split only seven of 100 counties. The populations of our districts varied, but by less than 1 percent. The average variance was 0.45 percent.
What did we get when we rolled the dice?
▪ Political balance. Of the 12 districts that existed at the time (a 13th would be added after the 2000 census), five favored Democrats and five favored Republicans based on past voting behavior. The other two could have swung either way.
▪ Incumbent protection. By happenstance, 10 of the 12 incumbents lived in separate districts. The exceptions: Republican Sue Myrick and Democrat Mel Watt, who at the time lived two doors apart in Charlotte’s Fourth Ward.
▪ Two urban districts. Mecklenburg County, then and now split into three districts, remained whole, and combined with parts of Gaston County. Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill formed their own district.
▪ A spread-out minority vote. Though no district had a black majority, one in the northeast had a population that’s 44 percent minority. Seven others had minority populations of at least 27 percent. It arguably could have elected a minority in one district and given them a greater voice in others.
There are lots of reasons such a map might not work. It doesn’t ensure minorities a proportionate share of representation. Population variances are too large to conform with court-mandated guidelines.
But it does show what a map might look like if race and politics weren’t factors.
For advocates of independent, nonpartisan redistricting, North Carolina’s latest problems only reinforce their argument. Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, an advocate of independent redistricting, says the current system deprives voters of competitive elections.
He’s not sure that independently draw districts would look all that much different than current ones. But he’s OK with that.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “if it comes out of (an independent) redistricting commission, even if it looks exactly the same, we’ll feel better about it.”