The elections for North Carolina’s congressional districts have already been thrown into chaos by a shotgun court order to redraw the districts, the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and the uncertainty over whether or not state Republicans will be granted a stay. But the effects of the redistricting, should the new map gain final approval from the legislature today, stands to deeply impact the state’s members of Congress—and their challengers.
Three members—two of them women—stand to lose the most.
Raleigh Republican George Holding, whose 13th district has been completely redrawn, would find himself in Democrat David Price’s left-leaning 4th district. Holding, who was first elected in 2012, could still run to in the Republican-friendly 2nd district—members of Congress don’t have to live in the districts they represent—but he could also face a challenge from a better-known local candidate.
“While you don’t have to live in your district to serve,” says Wake County Democratic Party chairman Brian Fitzsimmons, “it certainly makes it more difficult for Congressman Holding to run in a district that is on the complete opposite side of the state.”
Holding’s options (barring retirement) are to either move to the new 13th district, whose eastern border is now completely outside the Triangle, and hope he doesn’t face a challenge from someone with an existing base there, or he could join the throng challenging Representative Renee Ellmers in the 2nd; her four primary challengers are now completely outside her district.
There’s precedent for two House members from the same party running against each other in a primary due to redistricting. In 2011, longtime Ohio Representatives Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich, two top progressives in the Democratic caucus, were forced to run against each other. Holding could choose to primary Ellmers, given that her new 2nd district would be much closer to his home base than the new 13th.
Finally, Representative Alma Adams, whose district formerly stretched from Greensboro (where she lives) to Charlotte, now finds her district concentrated almost completely in Mecklenburg County. Adams, a former longtime state representative and art professor by trade, is now ninety miles outside the district she represents.
Because of the redistricting, the March 15 primary—which was to include all of the state’s races, including the presidential primaries—will likely no longer include the congressional districts, meaning a new primary date will have to be set for those.
“It creates greater confusion,” Fitzsimmons says. “This is the Republican General Assembly’s MO, to distract and confuse, and this certainly does that. Things were already confusing enough with voter ID and the moving of the primary, and this just exacerbates that. With further confusion comes disenfranchisement.”
NC State political science professor Andrew Taylor says a second primary will decrease turnout dramatically. “People are going to be largely drawn by the presidential primaries,” he says. “Without the pull of the presidential primaries, turnout is going to be significantly less. … However, I don’t know whether this helps an incumbent or an energetic challenger.”
One thing that won’t change is the general makeup of North Carolina’s congressional delegation, currently a 10–3 split in favor of Republicans. Were the state’s to split exactly in half, it would still be a 10–3 split.
Democrats say that the maps look better than they used to, but they argue that the partisan makeup of North Carolina’s slate in Congress should be changed as well. “The maps certainly look better,” says Democratic strategist Perry Woods. “But the fact is that it’s a slap in the face to the voters of North Carolina who’ve made it clear they want competitive districts. They’re certainly putting their will ahead of North Carolina voters, who want to pick their representatives, not have their representatives pick them.”
Fitzsimmon agrees. “They look more like a congressional district should look, but they split every major city in North Carolina, mostly along racial lines. They’re still continuing to isolate the growing African-American community in North Carolina.”
Republicans in the legislature stressed that they were not factoring in race, but they did admit to trying to maximize their partisan advantage.
“The practical effects are the same,” says Taylor. “You have thirteen districts in a purple state with a ten-three split. It’s classic cracking and packing and partisan gerrymandering. But what might be interesting is that those who want a total overhaul of the way things are done might have some momentum from the events of the last few weeks.”
Democracy NC, a Durham-based organization that works to increase voter participation and fight gerrymandering, is one such group. “There needs to be a new process for doing redistricting that is more bipartisan or nonpartisan,” executive director Bob Hall argues.
Hall says that his organization has looked at independent redistricting maps in different states—including Iowa, which has a commission that advises the legislature, and California, which has a completely independent nonpartisan commission—and analyzed the possibility of implementing a similar system here.
Even though depoliticizing redistricting is a generally popular idea, earlier bipartisan efforts have failed. Lawmakers are simply not inclined to relinquishing their ability to choose their own voters.
Hall argues the confusion is also partly the fault of the N.C. Supreme Court, which could have given the General Assembly much more time to redraw the maps if it had made a different decision in December.
“It’s one thing to do a map that is even eight to five in favor of one party, but going ten to three is just excessively greedy,” Hall says. “It’s time for the courts to recognize that the Equal Protection Clause should protect people from being discarded or packed into districts.”