N.C. Democrats made big gains in the General Assembly in the 2018 elections. But should those gains have been even bigger?

The left certainly thinks so. Progress NC put a press release decrying the fact that the Democratic Party won more the statewide popular vote in N.C. House and Senate races, but Republicans still hold comfortable majorities in both houses. They called it evidence of gerrymandering.

[Longleaf story: The definitive explainer on North Carolina’s gerrymandering mess]

Is this gerrymandering? Not really. It’s more about geography.

Admittedly, the numbers do look a little funny.

  • In the N.C. House, Democrats won 50.9% of the vote statewide, but only 45% of the House seats.
  • The numbers are similar in the state Senate: Democrats earned exactly 50% of the statewide vote, but only won 42% of the seats.
  • And in Congress, Democrats fell just shy of 50% of the vote, but won just 3 of North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House districts.

Obviously, representatives don’t run statewide. They run in districts. And the General Assembly has been upfront about the fact that these districts were drawn for Republican advantage.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. No matter how you slice the district map, this discrepancy is likely to show up.

In North Carolina and across the country, Democrats tend to live in big cities. Rural areas are reliably red. Geographically, rural areas are simply much larger.

So in most any way you draw districts, Democrats tend to pack together.

This map shows the results of the voter ID constitutional amendment referendum, mostly opposed by Democrats. The tan counties are generally urban areas, except for the heavily African-American northeastern part of the state.

This shows up in the votes. Look at the figures for U.S. Congress. All three Democrats who won earned 70% of the vote or more.

On the Republican side, the biggest winner was U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, who took 59% of the vote (if you set aside U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, who ran unopposed).

The same dynamic is true in the General Assembly races. Republicans are winning in the 50s, while Democrats are winning in the 60s and 70s — even 80s.

One more reason? The Voting Rights Act.

This landmark legislation preserves the right to vote for African-Americans and other minorities. One way it does this is to make sure that districts don’t dilute their impact.

This means that North Carolina and other states have congressional districts drawn to ensure African-Americans are able to select a representative of their choosing. This typically results in extremely large Democratic majorities.

Remember the old 12th Congressional District, when former U.S. Rep. Mel Watt held it? It was a snake-like abomination that went from Uptown Charlotte through Winston-Salem and into Greensboro and Durham. Democrats originally drew that district to create another minority district to satisfy the Voting Rights Act and carve themselves out another seat. Today’s 12th Congressional District is mostly just Charlotte, but has the same effect.

This is in no way meant to say the Voting Rights Act is bad. It’s been a very positive thing. In this case, it’s a complicating factor.

The old 12th Congressional District.

There is a way to make sure seats are won roughly in line with the statewide vote total. It’s called gerrymandering.

You can argue that this is a Republican tactic of packing opposition voters in together. And in some sense that’s true.

But no matter who’s drawing the maps, the fact that major cities are clusters of Democratic voters poses a challenge.

We could create more toss-up seats or more seats that Democrats win, but it’s probably going to include weird tentacles that pick up urban areas as well as rural.

As long as Democrats own urban areas and Republicans own rural ones, the GOP will be at an advantage in districts.

It’s tough to have three or four different districts that each own parts of a major city. That would immediately throw up red flags. But that’s the sort of thing you’d have to do to accomplish the goal of making seats match statewide vote totals.

In theory, Republicans could win 50.1% of the statewide vote and win every single district in North Carolina, even in a perfectly fair map. It’s math.

Winning a greater percentage of votes than seats is not itself evidence of gerrymandering.

1 COMMENT

  1. The “self-packing” of the Democrats in urban areas provides some advantage to the GOP, for sure, but not at all to the extent that you’re stating. The top 13 counties account for more than half the population (even based on 2010 estimates). Many of these are also the fastest-growing. Interestingly (to me, anyway), the top 13 counties, accounting for half of the population, are almost evenly divided between majority-DEM registration and majority-REP registration (7 are majority DEM, 6 are majority REP). DEM-majority counties account for 64% of the total pop, comparied to 36% for majority-REP counties (all by my calculations). The big fast-growing suburban counties are of course major battlegrounds. By the way, it is not at all hard to imagine districts being drawn to include slices of urban and suburban/rural voters. This is the classic gerrymander pinwheel design, which pops up regularly. The 2011 map has a lovely one in Mecklenburg.

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