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A Brief History on Gerrymandering in North Carolina

Gerrymandering undermines democracy and must be stopped



This is an image of the famous political cartoon titled "The Gerry-Mander," which was published in 1812. The cartoon is attributed to Elkanah Tisdale and appeared in the Boston Gazette. It criticizes the redistricting efforts of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, whose administration redrew electoral districts in a way that favored his party, leading to the creation of the term "gerrymandering." The illustration depicts one of the oddly shaped districts as a monster resembling a salamander, thus combining Governor Gerry's name with the word "salamander" to create "gerrymander."


By Joshua Peters

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing the boundaries of electoral districts to give one political party or group an advantage over others. The term “gerrymandering” was coined in the early 19th century and is attributed to a political cartoon published in the Boston Gazette in 1812. The cartoon depicted a distorted electoral district in Massachusetts that resembled a salamander, and it was named after Governor Elbridge Gerry, who had signed the bill creating the district.

The rise of extreme gerrymandering in North Carolina

On the heels of the 1990 United States Census, which necessitated a redrawing of the state's electoral districts to add a 12th congressional district, North Carolina's state legislature created the highly irregular and predominantly African American 12th congressional district in the 1992 redistricting process. This district stretched over 160 miles from Charlotte to Durham. The creation of District 12 raised concerns about racial gerrymandering, prompting legal challenges that ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court case Shaw v. Reno in 1993. In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the bizarrely shaped 12th congressional district was a form of racial gerrymandering and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination by the government.

North Carolina’s political landscape in 1998 was characterized by a competitive environment between the Democratic and Republican parties, with both parties seeking to control the redistricting process ahead of 2000. Gerrymandering had been a recurring issue in North Carolina politics, with Republicans accusing Democrats of manipulating electoral district boundaries to gain an advantage in elections aimed at protecting incumbents and maintaining party control over certain districts. Common Cause, a nonpartisan advocacy group, actively campaigned for fair and transparent redistricting processes in North Carolina during this time, challenging gerrymandering and promoting fair and equitable representation. Around 1998, North Carolina experienced a significant urbanization trend driven by economic growth, technology, and population migration, with cities like Charlotte and the Research Triangle Park area becoming major hubs.

Following the 2000 U.S. Census, new congressional districts were created and used for the 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010 election cycles. This redistricting gave North Carolina Democrats political control in the General Assembly when the 13th congressional district was added.

During the early 2000s, Democrats held significant power in North Carolina politics, controlling the state legislature and the governor’s office, which allowed them to have a substantial influence over the redistricting process. These redistricting efforts led to Democratic successes in the 2002 midterm elections, with Democrats winning a majority of the congressional seats despite the overall political climate favoring Republicans nationwide. The period from 2000 to 2008 in North Carolina marked a decade of extensive court battles over gerrymandering, with multiple legal challenges and rulings addressing the constitutionality of district maps and their impact on political representation.

The Republicans in North Carolina flipped the state legislature in the 2010 elections, marking the first time since Reconstruction that Republicans had gained control of both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly. With Republicans in control of the legislature after the 2010 elections, they gained the authority to lead the redistricting process for congressional and state legislative districts.

Following the 2011 redistricting of maps in North Carolina, Democrats held 4 out of the state’s 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The redistricting process that year had a significant impact on the balance of power in North Carolina's congressional delegation, favoring Republican representation. Legal challenges to the 2011 redistricting in North Carolina came from Democrats, who alleged that the newly drawn district maps were unfair, partisan gerrymanders, and violated the Voting Rights Act.

In Rucho v. Common Cause, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that challenges to extreme partisan gerrymandering were beyond the scope of federal courts, asserting that such cases presented political questions that could not be resolved through judicial intervention. “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” said Rep. David Lewis (R-NC, overseeing the redistricting process). In the 2020 United States House of Representatives elections in North Carolina, Democrats won seats in 3 out of the state’s 13 congressional districts.

In 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court blocked the state’s new Republican-drawn congressional and legislative maps, ruling 4-3 that they violated the state constitution. This led to court-ordered maps being used for the 2022 elections.

Following the 2022 North Carolina elections, the composition of the North Carolina Supreme Court changed, giving Republicans the majority on the court. In 2023, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed a prior ruling that had invalidated gerrymandered voting maps. The court contended that the prior Democratic majority had erred in its assertion that the state constitution explicitly prohibited extensive partisan gerrymandering. This reversal effectively repositioned the gerrymandering issue as a political question within the state. The existing map, subject to potential changes, heavily tilts in favor of Republicans, enabling them to uphold their political dominance over the state legislative branch and establish federal districts that are advantageous to their party.

The concentration of North Carolina Democrats in urban areas like Mecklenburg County and Wake County makes them highly vulnerable to gerrymandering tactics, as their voter bases are naturally clustered. The establishment of the Research Triangle Park (RTP) in 1959 marked the beginning of a deliberate effort to attract high-tech industries, research institutions, and skilled professionals to the region. The influx of professionals and job opportunities in the RTP area contributed to a substantial increase in the population of locations like Raleigh and Cary. Charlotte’s ascent as a significant banking hub began to gain prominence in the late 20th century, particularly during the 1990s and early 2000s when major financial institutions like Bank of America and Wachovia (which later merged into Wells Fargo) established their headquarters in the city. This era marked a critical phase in Charlotte’s transformation into a major financial center. By 2020, Wake County and Mecklenburg County collectively represented approximately one-fifth of the total population of North Carolina, showcasing the significant urbanization and population concentration in these two counties.

North Carolina Republicans have not only gained ground in suburban communities such as Wake County but have also strategically established influence in rural areas, giving them a significant advantage in devising favorable gerrymandering schemes. Consequently, the North Carolina Democratic Party is poised to operate as a minority party in the foreseeable future, largely due to the impact of gerrymandering strategies.

What are some possible solutions to end gerrymandering?

To address political gerrymandering, potential solutions include establishing Independent Redistricting Commissions and using advanced mathematical and machine learning techniques along with processes that enhance community transparency.

An Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) can be an effective solution to ending gerrymandering by creating fairer, more impartial electoral district boundaries. IRCs are typically composed of non-partisan or bipartisan members, often including citizens who are not politicians or affiliated with political parties, reducing the influence of partisan interests. These commissions operate transparently, conducting meetings and deliberations in public and soliciting input from the community. They use clear, neutral criteria for drawing districts, such as population equality, contiguity, respect for existing political and geographical boundaries, and the protection of communities of interest, while also adhering to explicit anti-gerrymandering rules. Judicial review ensures that the maps meet legal and constitutional requirements, providing an additional layer of oversight. By removing the redistricting process from elected officials, IRCs eliminate conflicts of interest and improve voter confidence in the electoral system. Successful examples of IRCs, such as those in California and Arizona, demonstrate how these commissions can create more balanced and competitive electoral districts, ensuring fairer representation for all voters.

Implementing machine learning algorithms, such as Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC), or mathematical techniques, like calculating the mean and standard deviation, to create district boundaries can help ensure that districts are drawn based on objective criteria and data-driven principles. Machine learning can analyze demographic, geographic, and community data to optimize district boundaries while minimizing partisan bias, thereby reducing the likelihood of gerrymandering. Base the process on geographical factors rather than political factors—and if necessary, eliminate political considerations completely. Use a completely mechanistic approach to draw political maps based on population size and criteria such as compactness and contiguity.

Transparency and community input measures, such as public hearings and the disclosure of criteria, play a crucial role in ensuring that redistricting is conducted openly and fairly. Actively seeking input from the public and communities of interest helps ensure that the redistricting process considers the needs and preferences of local communities. This reduces the potential for gerrymandering that divides or manipulates communities for political gain.

The North Carolina Forward Party is determined to address the issue of gerrymandering. This political strategy is harmful to democracy and, therefore, must be a critical matter included in any serious advocacy for election reforms.

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