Democrats dominate in Charlotte. Is gerrymandering to blame?

Nine of 11 Charlotte City Council members are Democrats. Why is that?
Nine of 11 Charlotte City Council members are Democrats. Why is that? jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

North Carolina’s congressional districts have been declared unconstitutional. The state’s legislative districts have been found unconstitutional. So it’s natural to wonder: Are Mecklenburg County’s commissioner districts and Charlotte’s City Council districts similarly gerrymandered?

Former Gov. Pat McCrory thinks so. He alleged on his WBT radio show recently that the Charlotte and Mecklenburg districts were unfairly drawn to favor Democrats and deserve as much scrutiny as the congressional and legislative maps.

Democrats hold 9 of 11 City Council seats and 6 of 9 commissioner seats. But is McCrory right? Let’s look at the maps.

The Mecklenburg commissioners map was actually drawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2011, over Mecklenburg’s objections.

Under that map, Mecklenburg elects six commissioners from districts. Almost without exception, three are Republicans and three are Democrats. Districts 1, 5 and 6 (currently represented by Jim Puckett, Matt Ridenhour and Bill James) vote reliably Republican. Districts 2, 3 and 4 (currently represented by Vilma Leake, George Dunlap and Dumont Clarke) vote reliably Democratic.

This three-three split comes in a county that has almost twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans and in 2016 voted 62-33 in favor of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump and 63-34 for Roy Cooper over McCrory. That suggests that, if anything, the commissioner districts are tilted a tad toward Republicans.

The districts are compact and have few tentacles like we’ve seen with congressional maps. The consistent electoral outcomes reflect not gerrymandering but the fact that in Mecklenburg Republicans tend to live near other Republicans and Democrats live near other Democrats, so compact districts lean consistently one way or the other. Most of the southern part of the county is Republican, for example; it should and will elect a Republican commissioner under any reasonably drawn lines.

It’s a similar story with the Charlotte City Council. Voters elect seven council members from districts. They almost always elect five Democrats and two Republicans. But as with the county commission, that’s not because of gerrymandering. Republicans make up only 20 percent of all Charlotte voters (plus unaffiliated voters who lean right) and they hold 29 percent of district seats (2 of 7). There are about 2.5 times as many registered Democrats as Republicans in the city, so it’s not surprising that Democrats hold 2.5 times as many district seats.

The City Council districts, like the county’s, are compact and not oddly shaped except where forced to be by the city’s jagged city limits.

So it turns out our local districts aren’t distorted like our congressional and legislative districts are. North Carolina is a 50-50 state but elects Republican supermajorities to the legislature and Congress. That’s because of gerrymandering. Charlotte and Mecklenburg mostly elect Democrats locally – not because the districts are rigged but because the voters mostly lean Democratic.

Still, with a 9-2 Democratic majority, the City Council tilts more Democratic than the city it represents. That’s because all four at-large seats have gone Democratic many years. The city should explore whether there are ways for the council to better reflect the city, including eliminating at-large seats.