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SILER CITY — Since the arrival of 2020 census data last month, redistricting has begun at all levels of government across the state and country.
What does that process involve? And what does it mean for municipal governments slated for imminent election cycles? The News + Record checked in with mapping experts and legislators to find the answers.
Every 10 years, municipalities, cities and states must assess their respective voting districts and amend them to uphold the “one person, one vote” principle: that every resident is entitled to fair and equal representation by districts of roughly equal population.
Districts need not change if the population has been largely inert over the previous decade. But if one thing is clear from the most recent census data, it’s that North Carolina and Chatham County have changed considerably.
“Especially in these areas around the Triangle, there’s been a lot of movement and population shift,” Blake Esselstyn, an Asheville demographer, told the News + Record.
Esselstyn is a mapping expert. Through his company, Mapfigure Consulting, Esselstyn advises government officials as they undertake the sticky redistricting process. This year, he is working with Siler City and Cary, among several municipalities statewide.
“You may have heard the term demographer, and it just refers to the study of population,” Esselstyn said. “So it’s appropriate for redistricting because I’m the one who is actually looking at the maps and making sure that the populations are balanced in the districts or wards, and also, in some cases, having to look at demographic information such as race and ethnicity.”
There are 62 municipalities in North Carolina organized by districts or wards that were scheduled for 2021 elections. Of those, 35 elect town representatives by voting districts. The other 27 “use districts or wards but don’t elect people by them,” N.C. State Board of Elections Communication Specialist Noah Grant previously told the News + Record. “They use them for filing purposes.”
Siler City and Cary (which has the largest voter base in Chatham) fall among the 35 in immediate need of revised districts. To accommodate delayed census data — which should have arrived months ago had the COVID-19 pandemic not complicated its collection — the General Assembly postponed this year’s municipal elections for districted towns until March 2022. Elected city and town officials whose seats would normally have expired in November will have their terms extended accordingly. (The unaffected towns of Pittsboro and Goldston, on the other hand, will have municipal elections as scheduled on Nov. 2; for residents there, one-stop absentee voting begins Oct. 14.)
That puts pressure on municipal governments — like Siler City and Cary — to perform the redistricting process efficiently. They must redraw their maps by mid-November, according to the GA’s order. Filing will begin in early December.
According to the experts: yes and no.
“It’s not as simple as you might think,” Esselstyn said.
Among other complications, towns must account for changes in census blocks, boundary adjustments over the past 10 years, population shifts and demographic dispersions. While some basic redistricting criteria are stipulated by federal and state laws, much of the responsibility to outline “guiding principles” falls to elected officials.
“There are a lot of things to consider that will shape the districts,” Esselstyn said, “and governments have to choose how they prioritize some of them.”
To illustrate how different priorities can produce different maps, Esselstyn likes to use a car-buying analogy. A family with several children and a busy lifestyle might list several desirable features in a car: high seating and storage capacity, good fuel economy, four-wheel drive, easy to park and more. A vehicle that ticks every box would be nice, but might be unrealistic.
“You realize that it may be hard to find a car that is four-wheel drive, seating capacity for six, has good fuel economy and it’s easy to park,” Esselstyn said. “So similarly, with redistricting, you might have guiding principles that are a little bit in conflict with each other and you have to prioritize.”
But that’s not to say bad maps happen by accident. Gerrymandered maps — districts drawn to favor one political party over another, or sometimes just to favor incumbents — always show signs of deliberate intent.
“The maps that were drawn in North Carolina in the last decade were very optimized,” said Nathaniel Fischer, a Durham resident and recent UNC-Chapel Hill political science graduate. His proposed map for North Carolina’s new congressional districts beat out 130 other entries in a national contest sponsored by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a Princeton University-based effort to promote fair redistricting.
“You could tell that the people who were drawing the map were looking at data sort of down to the precinct level,” Fischer said of N.C.’s gerrymandered districts. “It’s obvious someone was like, ‘Oh, this neighborhood votes this way more so than this neighborhood, we’re gonna put it in this district.’”
Fortunately, such indiscretion rarely makes its way into municipal maps.
“There’s potential for similar manipulation,” Esselstyn said. “But in my experience, and from talking to others, it happens much less often at the local level. Any kind of extreme partisan or racial gerrymandering is much less common at the local level.”
If history is any indicator, probably not, Fischer said.
“Redistricting in North Carolina has been really contentious forever,” he said. “I think there have been lawsuits for almost every recent cycle of North Carolina redistricting. I’m hopeful that the legislature will come up with a better product, but it’s very possible that they’ll come up with something that’s not really super fair.”
Chatham legislators within the General Assembly express similar apprehension.
“There’s been a stated commitment to making fair maps,” Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Dist. 54), Chatham’s representative in the N.C. House, told the News + Record. “But in my opinion, the way it works now is not set up to make the fairest maps possible.”
Senator Valerie Foushee (D-Dist. 23), Chatham’s state Senate representative, agrees it may be unrealistic to expect fair maps from a highly partisan General Assembly. But with more eyes watching this year’s redistricting process than ever before, she hopes social pressure will necessitate a better product.
“That is my hope anyway,” she said. “I am always optimistic; I am forever the optimist.”
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @dldolder.