Colin Campbell: Redistricting Could Boot Out Incumbents

Colin Campbell

RALEIGH — The jury’s still out on whether court-ordered redistricting will reduce Republicans’ power in the legislature after the 2018 election, but it’s becoming clear that the new districts could force out some incumbents from both parties — including a few African-American lawmakers.

The legislature’s Redistricting Committee set criteria Aug. 10 to guide their mapmaking consultant, Tom Hofeller, and the maps will be released in the coming weeks. Democrats objected most strongly to one provision of the criteria: The map-drawing process can’t consider any racial data about voters.

That’s a big change from the current districts that a federal court ruled to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, packing African-American voters into districts that diluted their political influence.

The new criteria is the latest pendulum swing in what’s been a Goldilocks problem in North Carolina for decades: Exactly how much should race be a factor in drawing districts?

If you ignore race and don’t have any majority African-American districts, you risk having an all-white legislature. But if you rely too much on race and pack African-Americans in the same few districts, minorities will have less influence over decision making. For years, courts have provided inconsistent guidance on how to get the amount “just right.”

Democrats pushed unsuccessfully for criteria this time that would say race “will not be the predominant factor” unless there’s “substantial evidence that the district’s boundaries are necessary to avoid a violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

“We live in the South,” said Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth. “When in the South has race not been a factor?”

Courts get the final say on the GOP’s new colorblindness policy, but the new districts could make it hard for African-American incumbents to get re-elected.

In addition to ignoring racial data, mapmakers will draw districts inside specific clusters of counties. For example, three Senate districts will be drawn inside the boundaries of Nash, Johnston, Lee, Harnett, Sampson and Duplin counties. The home of Sen. Angela Bryant, a six-term black Democrat from Rocky Mount, will be in one of those districts. She’ll lose three counties in her current district, as well as a sliver of Wilson County drawn to include African-American neighborhoods.

There’s a good chance Bryant could find herself in a Republican-majority district in 2018. The redistricting criteria has a provision protecting incumbents, but it only calls on mapmakers to make “reasonable efforts” to do so.

Despite that provision, some legislators from both parties will likely find themselves double-bunked with colleagues in 2018 — forced to run against another incumbent or throw in the towel. An analysis by WUNC public radio found that three of the county clusters will have more incumbents than available districts in the new maps. That means at least three sitting legislators will find themselves left out, a mix of Republicans and Democrats.

And that’s just the double-bunkers created by the county cluster map, which is the first step in the process. In protecting Republicans’ partisan advantage under the new districts, it’s inevitable that more incumbents will be collateral damage. The GOP might manage to keep its veto-proof majority in both chambers if the political winds blow their way, but expect to see lots of new faces from redrawn districts that don’t have an incumbent.

Open seats will put pressure on the political parties to recruit strong candidates, even in districts that strongly favor their parties. Weak candidate recruitment efforts result in fringe figures running unopposed — the sort of extreme ideologues who file outlandish bills that land North Carolina on late-night comedy shows.

But that’s all assuming the new maps pass legal muster, and we can expect gerrymandering opponents to ask the courts to reject districts weighted toward Republicans. If that happens, judges get to draw their own maps and all bets are off.

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Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com