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Yesterday, the website FiveThirtyEight released a really killer tool that enables you to get a good sense of how gerrymandering actually works—and doesn’t. In essence, “The Atlas of Redistricting” allows you to see what congressional districts would look like if: drawn to favor Republicans; drawn to favor Democrats; drawn to match the state’s electorate; drawn to promote competitive elections; drawn to maximize the number of majority-minority districts; drawn to make district shapes compact; and drawn to make districts compact while following county borders. Nationally, depending on how you work it, you can more or less guarantee Republicans anywhere from 184 to 263 seats, and Democrats anywhere from 171 to 250 seats. But I was more interested in how this would look in North Carolina. Here’s what I found:
Current districts: 10 R, 3 D, no competitive.
Gerrymandered Republican districts: 10 R, 3 D, no competitive.
Gerrymandered Democratic districts: 8 D, 5 R, no competitive.
Match districts to electorate: 7 R, 4 D, 2 competitive (both of which Democrats would be favored to win).
Highly competitive elections: 3 R, 0 D, 10 competitive (4 of which Democrats would be favored to win).
Maximize majority-minority districts: 8 R, 4 D, 1 competitive (Dems favored).
Compact districts drawn by algorithm: 6 R, 2 D, 5 competitive (Dems favored in 2, Republicans in 1, the other 2 tossups).
Compact districts that follow county borders: 8 R, 4 D, 1 competitive (Dem favored).
- As FiveThirtyEight explains: “All of the hand-drawn maps [all except the current maps and the one devised by algorithm] follow two simple rules: Each district must be contiguous, meaning that all parts of the district touch each other, by water or by land. And each district must be within 1,000 residents of the state’s ‘ideal’ district population—the total population in 2010 divided by the number of districts—to satisfy the legal requirement that districts be equally populous.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Of course the GOP-gerrymandered map has the same net result as the one we have now; the districts were explicitly gerrymandered to benefit Republicans, as the recent court case illustrated. (The question is only whether this is illegal.) But here’s the more interesting thing: in only one of the above scenarios—districts specifically gerrymandered to benefit Democrats—can Democrats expect to enjoy a majority of the congressional delegation. This, despite the fact that we are, on the whole, a purple state. The biggest reason for this is that Democrats tend to group in metros, while Republicans’ strength is the in suburban and rural areas. So, if you’re trying to keep districts compact, you naturally stuff big Democratic majorities into urban areas, leaving Republicans safe outside of them. This is more or less what the GOP legislature did, except on steroids, which is why a court found those districts unconstitutional (the court’s order for new districts was stayed by the Supreme Court).
- The point is, even if North Carolina had an independent redistricting commission—which we should—Republicans would probably come out ahead, just not as far ahead.