Playing the numbers

With the 2010 census numbers now in hand, the state Legislature has begun redrawing the lines for N.C. House and Senate, as well as congressional districts. May 15 is the target date for producing new district maps; public hearings are now being held around the state, with a visit to Western North Carolina slated for Saturday, April 30 (see box, “Hearing Aid”).

The redistricting process is something of a tightrope walk, with a host of partisan pitfalls on one side and the shadow of past racial discrimination on the other. And then there are all those numbers to account for.

North Carolina’s increased population (9,535,483 — a new high) means substantially more constituents per legislator. Each of the 50 state senators will represent 190,710 people, roughly 30,000 more than before. The 120 state representatives will each be accountable to 79,462 people, a jump of about 12,400. And each of the state's 13 members of Congress will now represent 733,499 constituents, an increase of about 114,300.

Accordingly, the Legislature must now devise new district boundaries that fit these numbers. The Legislator's Guide to North Carolina Legislative and Congressional Redistricting (see box, “Redistricting 101”) outlines both the process and the legal mandates. Citing landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases concerning North Carolina's past redistricting methods, the guide highlights both the importance and cumbersomeness of carving up the state to ensure appropriate citizen representation.

Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, 40 of the state’s 100 counties must undergo a federal review before the redistricting plan can become law. (In Western North Carolina, this affects only Jackson County.) There must be no intent to discriminate, and minority voters must not be put in a "worse position than prior law." Additionally, the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause outlaws gerrymandering based on either race or political affiliation.

Meanwhile, heavy population gains in the Piedmont will mean a heavier concentration of state legislators from those areas — and commensurate losses elsewhere. Wake County, for example, grew by more than 43 percent and Mecklenburg County by 32 percent, according to a March 8 analysis by Associated Press writer Gary D. Robertson. The piece quotes Ferrel Guillory, the director of UNC-Chapel Hill's Program on Public Life, who said: "Political power is going to follow people. Whether you're talking about congressional districts or … legislative districts, these two big counties and the areas around them … are going to be like giant magnets."

The people who have to figure all this out are the 16 members of the Senate and 43 members of the House standing committees on redistricting. The former group includes WNC Sens. Martin Nesbitt (a Buncombe County Democrat) and Republicans Tom Apodaca (Buncombe/Henderson counties) and Ralph Hise (Avery/Haywood/Madison/McDowell/Mitchell/Yancey). Serving on the House committee are Republicans Roger West, one of three vice chairs (Cherokee/Clay/Graham/Macon) and Tim Moffitt (Buncombe), plus Democrats Susan Fisher (also Buncombe) and Ray Rapp (Haywood/Madison/Yancey).

In an email to Xpress, Moffitt said, "Politics has not been that big a part of my life, and I have not really delved into the redistricting issue." The freshman legislator said he’s looking forward to the redistricting experience, which he hopes "and expects" will be "fair and legal." Buncombe County, he continued, is "pretty fortunate in that we will still have three districts," though the boundaries will have to change to fit shifts in population density.

Many eyes will be watching as the process moves forward, including those of Nesbitt, the Senate’s minority leader. During a March 30 Redistricting Committee meeting, Nesbitt repeatedly asked that two Democratic members be allowed to step down and be replaced by fellow Democrats Dan Blue (Wake County) and Dan Clodfelter (Mecklenburg), as reported online by John Rustin for the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition. Nesbitt cited Blue and Clodfelter's "experience and expertise in past redistricting efforts." But Mecklenburg County Republican Bob Rucho, the committee’s chair, denied the requests based on "geographic representation" and “the preference that the committee not be stacked with lawyers." Rustin speculated that Nesbitt and Rucho were already engaged in building a record for a "potential legal challenge" to the redistricting process down the line.

— Nelda Holder can be reached at nfholder@gmail.com.

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