Census data likely to necessitate new state senator for Chatham

Posted 8/25/21

RALEIGH — State Senator Valerie Foushee (D-Dist. 23), whose district has included Chatham County since her appointment to the Senate in 2013, will no longer represent the county if reelected in …

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Census data likely to necessitate new state senator for Chatham

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RALEIGH — State Senator Valerie Foushee (D-Dist. 23), whose district has included Chatham County since her appointment to the Senate in 2013, will no longer represent the county if reelected in 2022, according to boundary delineations released last week.

With the arrival of Census data earlier this month, North Carolina’s decennial redistricting process has begun. Over the coming months, the General Assembly and local governments will employ Census figures to redraw voting maps. Districts must have roughly equal populations and lawmakers cannot discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, according to federal and state mandates.

The first step in redistricting, however, is mostly automated: establishing county clusters.

“The county clusters are largely algorithmically determined through an optimization procedure outlined by the N.C. Supreme Court ...,” says the introduction to a Duke University research paper, which outlines the probable county clusters for the nascent redistricting process. After counties are grouped together, legislators must draw districts from within the cluster boundaries.

1. Senate county clusters as generated according to a state-mandated algorithm. Gray regions include alternative clusterings, but Chatham's cluster — depicted in maroon — does not. Barring General Assembly interference, Chatham will likely be grouped without Orange County for the first time in more than 20 years. 2. Chatham County is likely to be clustered with Randolph, Lee, Moore and Richmond counties in the county clusters which will outline district maps for the next 10 years of elections.


“Even a lot of people who are well-informed about how government works aren’t aware of this,” Blake Esselstyn, a demographer with Asheville-based Mapfigure Consulting, told the News + Record. Esselstyn is one of five co-authors of the aforementioned Duke University paper and he is advising Siler City and Cary, among other local governments statewide, through the redistricting process.

“It imposes a major constraint on our legislative maps,” he said of the automatically generated county clusters.

The cluster algorithm does include some variants of the House and Senate cluster maps, all of which meet the mathematical standard of optimization. There are eight acceptable versions from which the House can make its districts, and 16 for the Senate. In every possible rendition of House and Senate maps, however, Chatham is clustered with the same neighboring counties: Randolph, Lee, Moore and Richmond for the House, and Durham for the Senate.

“It changed hugely,” Esselstyn said. “There are very different groupings than have been used for the last 10 years.”

For more than 20 years, Chatham has been paired with Orange County in Senate district maps. Foushee, a lifelong Orange resident, has served both counties for eight years.

“Based on the criteria and the numbers and how the cluster groupings are arranged, that is not likely to be the case anymore,” she told the News + Record. “In fact, we pretty much know that won’t be the case.”

Foushee still plans to run for another term in the Senate, she confirmed for the News + Record. But if reelected in 2022, her district will likely include Orange, Caswell and Person counties, and Chatham will have a new state senator.

“I’m not happy about it,” Foushee said. “I’m happy to serve, let’s be clear, but as a representative of Chatham now for eight years and my husband was born in Chatham — we have lots of friends and relatives in Chatham, he has siblings who live in Chatham and my sister lives in Siler City — I wasn’t just representing the county itself. Because of our relationships with friends and family, it was like one continuous district. There were no county lines for me.”

Chatham’s representative in the House, Robert Reives II (D-Dist. 54) — who serves as the chamber’s minority party leader — is also likely to see a change in his district borders if reelected. Right now, his district includes Chatham and part of Durham County. If the county cluster maps are upheld, his district would no longer include Durham. But Reives is less confident than Foushee and Esselstyn in the finality of what has been released so far.

“There’s nothing set in stone,” he said. “I have no thought in my mind that, ‘Hey, now that this algorithm has been run, that’s what it’s going to look like.”

The difficulty, said Reives, who is also a lawyer, is that automated processes such as county cluster generation can still be subject to interpretation of the state’s constitution and laws. In North Carolina — a state known around the country for its history of gerrymandering — even seemingly clear laws have been interpreted in unexpected ways.

“Everything at this point is about interpretations of the constitution, and then interpretations of any law that is interpreting the constitutional authority to draw districts and then, finally, what the general assembly feels it is or isn’t bound by,” Reives said. “And I hate to sound nebulous on that, but it’s just really hard to say anything is final because I would bet if you polled 120 people privately about what they believe our legal rights and obligations are when it comes to redistricting, you would get probably 60 different interpretations.”

If the General Assembly upholds the county cluster separating Orange and Chatham, however, Foushee hopes her current Chatham constituents know the honor it’s been to serve them, she said.

“I’ve lived all my life in Orange, but having family and friends in Chatham for all of my life, too,” she said. “So Chatham is like family, and it’s been a privilege to represent.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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