The independent news organization of Duke University

Professors criticize North Carolina's newly drawn district maps

The North Carolina state legislature has faced continued criticism following the adoption of new district maps to eliminate racial gerrymandering.

In May, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that North Carolina had engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering in the creation of its legislative districts following the 2010 Census. The Court then ordered the state to redraw the maps, which were approved by the state legislature Aug. 30. However, many are still unhappy with the maps, arguing that the new districts are barely an improvement from the old ones. 

“Even though these maps are probably somewhat less biased toward the Republican party, they’re still heavily [biased],” said Fritz Mayer, professor of political science, public policy and the environment.

In North Carolina, state legislative redistricting must take place in the first regular legislative session following the United States Census. In 2010, Republicans won control of both the North Carolina House and Senate, consequently winning the right to control the redistricting process. Plaintiffs from the allegedly gerrymandered districts sued the state in 2011, setting off multiple rounds of federal court cases that culminated in May’s ruling of the case, which was called Cooper v. Harris. 

The creation of legislative districts has always been a tricky issue. Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the creation of “majority-minority” districts was a way to ensure black representation, but drawing districts to pack them full of minority voters quickly became a tactic used to dilute the voting power of African Americans. 

John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University professor of political science, noted that North Carolina has exploited this tactic to gain legislative advantages from district maps.

Although the racial gerrymandering was ruled unconstitutional in the Cooper v. Harris decision, critics of the new maps argue that the districts remain unfairly gerrymandered. Sophomore Leah Abrams, president of Duke Democrats, pointed out the disparity between actual voter populations and those represented on the maps.

“The North Carolina population is almost exactly evenly divided [between Republicans and Democrats], and you don’t see that at all in the new maps that they drew," she said. "You see a Republican majority pretty much any way you take it.” 

Aldrich noted that the new maps offer insight into the Republican party’s desire to retain their majority in the state legislature. 

“Republicans ran a risk they didn’t necessarily need to take—they changed [the maps] ever so slightly but not much," he said. "They’re trying to cut it as narrowly as possible and still remain constitutional."

Abrams said she viewed the maps as an injustice to voters, and Mayer added that the new maps are a source of potential “voter discouragement." He noted that for many voters, “it just doesn’t seem like there’s much point in showing up to vote.” 

Despite their frustrations, both Mayer and Abrams expressed hope that the issue of gerrymandering could serve as a tipping point for political action in North Carolina. 

Abrams noted the large population of politically involved North Carolina residents and said she hopes that many will act to protect civil rights at any cost

“If gerrymandering can become the face of the political dysfunction [in the state], there’s a chance you could put enough pressure on the system to change things,” Mayer said. 

Editor's note: Abrams also serves as The Chronicle's editorial page managing editor.