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The history of redistricting in North Carolina

“This is very much a legislative-driven dynamic, but with recent court cases, I think the issue of transparency will be a key component when these maps in all likelihood will be litigated over,” Dr. Michael Bitzer said.
Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 8:22 PM EDT
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WINTERVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - In North Carolina, there have been more than 40 years of not just political battles, but legal ones, over congressional maps and state House and Senate maps, according to political scientist Dr. Michael Bitzer.

“Whoever controls the General Assembly controls the mapmaking process,” Bitzer says.

“It’s based on the basic idea of the districts should be, in general, equal population to each other. So that one person’s vote in one district equals another person’s vote in another district.”

Dr. Michael Bitzer

The process determines who your representative will be, including your state house representative, state senator and member of Congress.

But what redistricting has become, Bitzer says, is the most political activity in American politics because politics has always infected redistricting.

Bitzer, who teaches at Catawba College and wrote a book on the history of redistricting in North Carolina, says America traditionally has had fights over racial gerrymandering, the drawing of districts to benefit a minority party.

“In the 1990s and 2000s, North Carolina had various congressional districts that were drawn to help elect a black representative proportional to their population percentage,” Bitzer said.

“What we have come to discover is that that is very fraught, that may deny people equal protection of the law, which is a constitutional violation. We have also seen here in North Carolina, and this has been historic since the founding of the state, the idea of partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of districts to benefit one party over the other.”

Dr. Michael Bitzer

States such as California have taken the power to redraw district lines from the legislators to another separate commission, sometimes called nonpartisan or bipartisan.

But in North Carolina, it has been a purely legislative power since the founding of our state, which Bitzer added would require the legislature to willingly give up.

But what’s interesting is that both political parties have called for independent redistricting commissions at some point in time, Bitzer said.

“This is very much a legislative-driven dynamic, but with recent court cases, I think the issue of transparency will be a key component when these maps in all likelihood will be litigated over.”

Dr. Michael Bitzer

The Republican Party assumed authority over the General Assembly in 2011. The last time Republicans controlled the General Assembly was in a coalition back in the 1890s, so Bitzer said it’s a new day in North Carolina politics with Republicans having complete control over the General Assembly.

State lawmakers heard from the public in a series of hearings across the state in September, including in Pitt County, where more than thirty speakers spoke at Pitt County Community College on Thursday.

“What we would like to see is more accessible hearings because unfortunately there’s only 13 hearings throughout the entire state of North Carolina and there are 100 counties,” Stacey Carless, NC Counts Coalition executive director, said.

“Considering location of some of the hearings as well as the time... it sometimes can be difficult for folks to get off of work to really be able to be in person and to be fully engaged in that process.”

Stacey Carless, NC Counts Coalition executive director

NC Counts Coalition had made efforts to get an accurate 2020 Census count, and the latest data showed North Carolina’s population grew and the state gained a 14th additional seat in Congress.

“The fact that there is an additional seat, that gives North Carolina more political power which makes us much more influential on a national level,” Carless said.

“We’re seeing that a lot of the growth is being driven by communities of color, so now is the time for our communities to be active and to be engaged and we just want to make sure that the maps that are drawn actually match the growth that we see in our state.”

Stacey Carless, NC Counts Coalition executive director

Bitzer wondered where the 14th seat will be contained.

“Will it be in the eastern part of the state, perhaps around Johnston County and the coastal area that has seen a great deal of growth, or could it be more aligned with a particular legislator who could then run for Congress, him or herself?”

Dr. Michael Bitzer

Bitzer recalled a time he said is the most infamous in the past 40 years of redistricting in our state, involving Interstate 85.

“That district started in Gastonia, which is west of Charlotte, came into Charlotte... ended up in Durham. There was a standing joke that if you stop the car in one lane of I-85 and opened both car doors, you could be in three congressional districts at the same time. Now that’s a little bit of hyperbole, but it was all around drawing a district in Piedmont to benefit a black, typically democrat, to be elected.”

Dr. Michael Bitzer

Bitzer said we’ll have to wait and see how the process unfolds with the addition of a 14th House seat.

“We will likely see some maps start emerging in October, and the likelihood is all of this activity in the legislature will be wrapped up by the end of October, early November, because we have candidate filing for the March primaries,” Bitzer said.

“So there are some deadlines that the legislature needs to meet in order to stay on track for the counties to begin the process of assigning voters to the various districts, for the voters to let them know who their candidates are and then to have the election for the primaries in March.”

Dr. Michael Bitzer

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