North Carolina's Redistricting Mess Shows Why State Legislatures Must Limit Partisan Mapmaking

The status quo is bad for voters, candidates, and democracy. State legislatures should try to fix it.


Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

A three-judge panel of judges has ruled, for the second time this year, that North Carolina's congressional districts are unfairly gerrymandered to give Republicans an electoral edge and must be redrawn before November. The decision has thrown crucial congressional races into chaos.

That doesn't mean the decision is wrong. If congressional districts are unlawful, they should not be used for any election, no matter how disruptive it might be to remedy them. The problem is that the line between unfair and unlawful redistricting is pretty blurry.

Start with what's most obvious: North Carolina's districts were slanted to favor Republicans. This is beyond doubt. Prior to a GOP-controlled redistricting process in 2011—GOP-controlled because state lawmakers handle congressional district-drawing and the GOP won tons of state legislative seats in 2010—Democrats held eight of the state's 13 seats in Congress. In the first election held on the new map, Republicans won a 9–4 majority in the state's congressional delegation, even though Democrats received more aggregate votes.

Such is the power of redistricting. By packing parts of the state with high concentrations of Democratic voters into a few incredibly odd-shaped districts, Republican mapmakers gave their candidates an edge in other parts of the state.

Take the former 12th district. It was a serpentine monstrosity more than 200 miles long but never more than about 20 miles wide, winding from deep blue Charlotte to deep blue Winston-Salem and avoiding most of the Republican strongholds in between. In redistricting talk, these kinds of districts are known as "vote sinks."

The 12th district has been featured in practically every article, analysis, and report on redistricting since 2011. One statistical analysis of the compactness of congressional districts rated it either the first or second most gerrymandered district in the country, depending on which measurement is used. The same report, from the Philadelphia-based geospacial mapping firm Azavea, ranked North Carolina as the nation's second most gerrymandered state—trailing only Maryland, a state that itself looks like a gerrymandered district.


Everyone agrees North Carolina was gerrymandered in 2011, but that in itself is not necessarily illegal. Redistricting is a fundamentally political process, and state lawmakers and courts have been unwilling to put objective limits on how much partisan influence is OK.

But there are legal limits when gerrymandering affects racial minorities, and it was on those grounds that federal judge Roger Gregory ruled in 2016 that North Carolina's 1st and infamous 12th districts must be redrawn. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Redrawing those two districts required shifting others around, but the resulting map drew another legal challenge for unfairly boosting Republican candidates.

In January, a panel of three federal judges ruled that the entire map would have to be redrawn before the 2018 election. As it did with other gerrymandering cases out of Wisconsin and Maryland this year, the Supreme Court declined in June to rule decisively on North Carolina's map. Instead it sent the matter back to the lower court and asked for more evidence that voters from all across the state—rather than from merely a few districts—were disenfranchised.

That brings us to Monday. After hearing arguments from voters in all 13 of North Carolina's congressional districts, the same three-judge panel from January ruled 2–1 that the state's map is still unconstitutional and must be redrawn. The U.S. Constitution, Judge Jim Wynn wrote for the majority, "does not allow elected officials to enact laws that distort the marketplace of political ideas so as to intentionally favor certain political beliefs, parties, or candidates and disfavor others."

By ordering the state legislature to come up with a new district map by mid-September, the judges have created their own distortions. Candidates standing for election in just 70 days now have no idea in which districts they reside, and neither do voters. The primary elections have already happened, but may need to be redone in new districts before November. Meanwhile, the specter of partisanship hangs over the ruling—as conservative media quickly pointed out, the two judges who voted to toss the North Carolina congressional map were appointed by Democrats; the dissenting vote came from a Republican appointee.

There should be little sympathy for Republicans who claim that partisanship overturned their own obviously partisan efforts to influence the outcome of elections. Still, the possibility that judicial oversight of redistricting could become another level in an endlessly partisan game is also worrying. Should the fairness of congressional districts really depend on which set of judges is looking at them? That's no solution.

And while Republican-drawn gerrymanders in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania have drawn the most attention in the media and courts, Democrat-drawn maps made in 2011 were actually less compact on average. Clearly, neither major party has the moral high ground here.

Source: Azavea

As in Pennsylvania earlier this year, North Carolina's ongoing redistricting crisis demands that both major parties agree to objective, measurable limits on partisan gerrymandering. Statistical measurements like those that identified the old North Carolina 12th as the nation's most gerrymandered district can be part of this solution, as can overlayed data about electoral outcomes—like the "Efficiency Gap" measure that was at the center of this year's Wisconsin redistricting case that reached the Supreme Court.

Each of those measurements has its limits, and any standards set would be arbitrary by nature. Do you prohibit districts with a Polsby-Popper score of less than 20 or less than 15? Those are questions that state legislatures should settle, not courts; and the same standards don't have to apply everywhere. But without some limitations, partisan fights over redistricting will only get worse. Remember, we're only three years away from the next scheduled redrawing of all congressional districts following the 2020 census.

The current redistricting process leaves voters confused at best, disenfranchised at worst. It invites partisanship into the legal system. And it produces congressional majorities that do not always reflect the will of the people. Lawmakers have the tools to write some rules for this ugly political game, and they should seize the opportunity.

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  1. I’m waiting to hear about the gerrymandering in IL.

    It’s being played as a republican issue. No doubt they know how to use it. But they are not the only ones.

    1. I have seen Reason hit MD pretty good with the Dems gerrymandered districts. Districts 8 & 6 are ridiculous and are just clear political bullshit to anyone who has lived in the state.

      1. How about MD 4th district? It’s pretty ridiculous. I used to live in the little strip between the two big blobs.

        1. The whole thing is so gerrymandered but when Garrett County is now in the same district as Montgomery County, they aren’t even trying to hide their naked partisanship. Plus I live in the 8th and now get Rockville residence in my district. Yeah for me I moved out here to get away from those fuckers.

      2. Except it doesn’t matter if Reason notices or not, since the courts clearly don’t notice unless it’s a Republican gerrymander.

        1. Blame the fucking asshole Republicans on the Supreme Court for side stepping the issue and sending it back to the lower courts. Pieces of shit justices didn’t even have the balls to sign the opinion. They also for the record side stepped the issue on Wisconsin a map drawn by Repubs that was gerrymandered (allegedly, I don’t know anything about Wisconsin geography/population centers).


      Illinois had a 2.8% efficiency gap. Democrats got 1 extra seat out of 18.

      North Carolina had a 20.3% gap. They got 3 extra seats out of 13.

      The votes were 53-54% for the majority party (D in IL, R in NC).
      IL had a 11-7 split, NC had 10-3. It’s not even close.

      The only true Democratic gerrymander is Maryland, and that’s only good for 1 extra seat.

      1. You pretend that the efficiency gap is a meaningful measure of gerrymandering. It is not.

        1. “We made up a metric and we insist that we only discuss this topic in line with that metric”

          That is basically your typical progressive maneuver

        2. Fine. Look at the raw outcomes.
          Illinois has a small voter margin, and a moderate majority in the delegation. That’s what is expected, there’s a bit of amplification of margin involved.

          North Carolina has a very similar split, and more than a 3-1 margin in the delegation. That’s a result of gerrymandering. They admitted, practically bragged about it.

          The delegation should reflect the votes. In North Carolina it doesn’t. They have been changing the rules throughout to maintain partisan advantage irrespective of the votes. Whatever your partisan leanings, that is bad.

          1. “The delegation should reflect the votes.”

            There is no particular reason the delegation should reflect the votes, unless you are relying on partisan gerrymandering to make it so. Voters from the various parties are not uniformly distributed throughout the state. You claim that partisan gerrymandering is bad, but that is exactly what you are asking for.

            This (as does the efficiency gap) also ignores things that can drive down vote totals for a party, like a terrible candidate or not bothering to run a candidate in a particular district.

            If you want the congressional delegation to reflect the votes, then do away with districts altogether.

            1. Actually, it takes into account all of those things. The concept does not expect a number of zero. They looked at historical data and set a threshold (around 8, if I remember). Then, they say that it should be subject to tighter scrutiny. Illinois has a non-partisan gerrymander, entrenching incumbents (mostly on the state level, less relevant I think on the federal level).

              If you think Illinois has a partisan gerrymander, what’s your evidence?

              I’d be overjoyed to eliminate the single member, FPTP districts. Cutting edge in the late 18th century, but there are much better solutions. It’s time to come up with something root and branch.

              1. The evidence is probably that they reduced the number of elected Republican congressmen after the redistricting in 2010 by gerrymandering districts?


              2. “Actually, it takes into account all of those things.”

                No it doesn’t.

                “Illinois has a non-partisan gerrymander”

                There is no such thing.

                “If you think Illinois has a partisan gerrymander, what’s your evidence?”

                You admit that Illinois is gerrymandered.

                “I’d be overjoyed to eliminate the single member, FPTP districts. Cutting edge in the late 18th century, but there are much better solutions.”

                Why do you hate democracy? Eliminating single member districts eliminates the need for the House.

          2. Unless you are going to eliminate districts entirely, and thus conduct a statewide election to select the Congresscritters by some sort of ratio, there is no reason to expect the net delegation within a state should equivalently represent the net total partisan votes, unless you have set up a system to ensure such an outcome.

      2. The efficiency gap is a meaningless number. It demonstrates literally nothing.

        1. It tells you how many voters have a representative who doesn’t actually represent them from the last election. But using that data to re-district is just an attempt to freeze the results of future elections.

      3. Illinois is very much gerrymandered to ensure that Democrats get more representatives than they would if the districts were drawn in a non-partisan manner such that they were compact, followed established political boundaries, and disregarded political and demographic data.

        Illinois is a great example of the flaws in the efficiency gap.

        1. How do you figure? The results reflect the vote.

          1. This is what happens why partisans co-opt a word with an established understanding and try to re-purpose it.

          2. You telling me that these districts were not specifically drawn to benefit specific somebodies?

            Central Chicago to the suburbs.

            This one runs from the South side of Chicago to way the hell out in farm country.

            Again, South Chicago to way the hell out in farm country

            I’m sure those farmers feel they are getting adequate representation from the city focused rep that was hand picked for them by team Madigan.

            I just…oh fuck it

            Incidentally, Speaker Madigan (who may as well be Governor, and President of the Senate) torpedoes all efforts to create non-partisan redistricting.

            1. Hint: Those districts were not constructed to benefit Republicans

    3. This issue has started to come since the GOP has gained control of a majority of state legislatures. The Dems don’t think the tricks they employed for decades are fair when used against them.

    4. “A three-judge panel of judges has ruled, for the second time this year, that North Carolina’s congressional districts are unfairly gerrymandered to give Republicans an electoral edge and must be redrawn before November. The decision has thrown crucial congressional races into chaos.”
      If this claim and action is upheld all Kalifornexicos’ congressional districts MUST be redrawn since they are drawn to give the democrats advantages. ALL gerrymandering s/b outlawed. The only way to keep the population of an area included in a district is to divide the districts by counties and then by equal areas in the county. The area south of the san gabriel mtns and west of the 15 freeway contains half of the states population. it s/b divided into 32 equal rectangles instead of rearranging them every so often to protect incumbents. The same s/b done for the rest of Kalifornias’ remaining 21 districts. The states 80 legislative districts should also be divided in the same manner.

    5. Vic is correct. This article only shows the authors bias toward the Republican party when there are FAR more egregious
      examples everywhere there is democrat ruled states. ALL gerrymandering should be outlawed.
      Also top two vote getters, as in Kalifornexico, should not be allowed just to save a few dollars by not having primaries for each party.

  2. Pretty sure that the takeaway here is that the judiciary should not involve itself in political questions. I don’t recall people raising the alarm about gerrymandering when the roles were reversed so this is rather transparent, especially since the Supreme Court has already told the panel to reconsider their opinion.

    1. And they did reconsider… issuing the exact same ruling. Something tells me that this order may be put on hold.

      1. The Democrats held the House for over 40 years in a row. I bet those were totally awesomely drawn districts.

        1. A combination of revolt against Nixon in the north and the Old South staying Democrat so that the congressmen could keep their seniority.

          1. You clearly are not familiar with the history of the House. Democrats controlled the House for most of Nixon’s tenure, as well.

            1. The Dems controlled the House from the Eisenhower administration to the second half of Clinton’s first term.

            2. Welcome to the solid south. Plus FDR saving America.

              From 1933 to 1994, there were two terms that had a Republican majority in the house. Parties worked different then — race was a second axis. The New Deal/Great Society proponents allied with the segregationists. A deal with the devil. That deal fell apart after the Civil Rights Era, but most of the Southern Democrats stayed in the party because they were not given the deal that Thurmond got to switch and take the segregationists with him. As they retired, their replacements (often their staffers) won as Republicans. Helms, etc.

              1. “Plus FDR saving America.”

                What a faggot (stronger together!).

              2. You really have no grasp on history. The Southern Strategy is probably the most debunked popular myth. The South didn’t even start voting Republican en mass until the 90’s. Not to mention that Republicans still won in the South, even after passing Civil Rights legislation under Eisenhower.

                1. This. If the South went for Republicans because they thought Nixon was promising to be less stringent on enforcing the Civil Rights legislation than Democrats would ? then it took over twenty years for that change to happen.

      2. Depends on the timing of the Kavanaugh hearings. They may be too late. Otherwise, it’s a 4-4 decision that affirms the ruling.

        1. As usual, you don’t understand how any of this works. The Justice who has jurisdiction over NC can put a hold on the ruling, which would be a logical move considering the disastrous effect of this ruling after primaries have already occurred

          1. And that’s John Roberts.

          2. It depends on how long the hold would have to be. With the timing and stakes, I would expect the court to act quickly. I think Roberts would be hesitant to put a hold on the decision through the election. The longer the hold, the more chaos. The election is also in chaos because of the constitutional amendments that have been proposed, all to entrench Republican power.

            This could have been avoided by putting the people above the party and accepting voting results. They lost the governor race. So, they are trying to take power away from the guy people voted for. They lost court races, so they changed the rules, and when that didn’t work, they tried to change the rules again.

            1. This could have been avoided by the courts not involving themselves in a political question

            2. “The election is also in chaos because of the constitutional amendments that have been proposed, all to entrench Republican power.”

              How, pray tell, do proposed constitutional amendments cause chaos? Nothing in either this decision or any action by the Supreme Court would affect the votes on the constitutional amendments.

              I ask again, why do you hate democracy so much?

  3. Every Congressional district I’ve lived in has been unfairly drawn so that I have no like-minded representative in Congress. Geography is an outdated way to select representatives, and governments. Everyone should be able to choose a representative who actually represents them — if 3 percent of the nation votes Libertarian, 3 percent of Congress should be Libertarians. It’s not like we need to show up at the guy’s office any more, what with email and Twitter and cell phones.

    1. Such a scenario would require the centralization of voting rules and the elimination of a federal system of government. Some have voiced pessimism that federalism is in anyway and incremental gain for liberty, but the opposite seems like a surefire winner for larger government.

    2. Or we could just make sure that no one in the House “represents” more than, say, 100,000 people. That would result in about 3000+ members of the House, but it’s better than someone “representing” almost 1,000,000 people as it is now.

      1. I advocate that as well, capping the number of Congressmen was a bad move and is one reason why we’ve seen the expansion of the permanent political class that live in the bureaucracy.

        1. I’m not certain expanding the House from 435 members to 3k+ is going to help with the “expansion of the political class” problem, but I do think it’s a good idea anyway.

          I like the idea of how much gridlock there’d be if we ran the House back on Founding terms: One rep per 30k people. Works out to ~11,000 reps.

  4. This issue is so fucking transparently retarded. The democrats are losing so suddenly the weapon they’ve been using as a cudgel for decades to beat back the evul republican candidates is bad because the shoe is on the other foot.

    1. for the record I think gerrymanding is awful but it might be the least bad option that’s presented, as pretty much everysystem has is drawbacks. Anyway I suspect that This issue will disappear the second democrats regain legislatural prominence again.

      1. Several studies have suggested that the most effective gerrymandering Republicans could propose would be no gerrymandering at all–maximizing the overall compactness of all of the districts in the state–because of the extent of democratic concentration in urban areas. This is obviously unacceptable to Democrats, but all of the other options rely on political gerrymandering, the very thing that is supposedly objectionable.

  5. “Congressional districting is the most political thing you can do.”
    -Someone said that

  6. When you can’t win an election fair and square, get some friendly judges to change the rules of the game.

    1. Now do closing polling places.
      Now do trying to add requirements for judicial nominees to have a party affiliation after the filing is done.

  7. Furthermore, the Constitution requires that no more than 30,000 people be represented per Congressman.

    With 330M population, we should have 11,000 Congressmen.

    1. No – Art. I, Sec. 2, clause 3 says, “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have a Least one Representative;…”

      That merely says we can’t have MORE THAN one Representative for every 30,000 people. It does not require that for every 30,000 people there be one Representative!

      That mean we can have at MOST 11,000 congressmen.

      1. Congress froze the number of the House of Representatives sometime in the 30’s or 40’s, I believe

        1. It was the 20s and they claimed it was for lack of office space. No shit.

          1. They didn’t want to move out of the capitol building was pretty much the reasoning. Or at least the stated reasoning. Given all the other things going on at the time, it seems like a bald faced lie.

    2. Not exactly:

      “The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative” — Article One, Section 2, Clause 3

      This means the House itself cannot exceed 11,000 members, not that the Constitution would require that amount under present circumstances.

      Not that I’m against having a larger Congress to represent us more fairly; I myself would propose having one representative for every 250,000. This would mean repealing the Reapportionment Act of 1929, which has fixed the House at 435 members. But I’d also go further and have each state’s delegation chosen by proportional representation, through either multi-member districts, at-large lists, or a combination thereof ? which, by the way, is in no way prohibited by the Constitution.

  8. Start with what’s most obvious: North Carolina’s districts were slanted to favor Republicans. This is beyond doubt. Prior to a GOP-controlled redistricting process in 2011?GOP-controlled because state lawmakers handle congressional district-drawing and the GOP won tons of state legislative seats in 2010?Democrats held eight of the state’s 13 seats in Congress. In the first election held on the new map, Republicans won a 9?4 majority in the state’s congressional delegation, even though Democrats received more aggregate votes.

    You’re aware that this is equally evidence that the districts were wrong under Democrats than they are under Republicans, right?

    Democrats have a habit of living in cities. Not exactly large areas so, district-wise, it will be hard to win majorities for them,

    1. Changing your policy prescriptions to better fit your constituents couldn’t hurt either though.

  9. The U.S. Constitution, Judge Jim Wynn wrote for the majority, “does not allow elected officials to enact laws that distort the marketplace of political ideas so as to intentionally favor certain political beliefs, parties, or candidates and disfavor others.”

    The American Nazi Party must be pleased to see their candidates get automatic ballot access and electioneering funds. They’re probably so pleased they’ll have a parade in Charlottesville or something.

    1. If the American Nazi Party hit the same rules as any other party, they would be on the ballot.

      1. Christ. The *Libertarian Party* has difficulty meeting the requirements. Because they’ve been carefully drafted so the two major parties meet them easily and ita diffict for anyone else to do so.

  10. Broehm, partisanship is the purview of the elected branches of government. Partisanship in the judiciary is a breakdown of institutional values. That is a bigger problem than the gerrymandering issue.

  11. >>>That doesn’t mean the decision is wrong.

    likely sideways of justice to disrupt elections 10 weeks out as well

    1. So, I wonder what happens if they just ‘accidently’ drop the ball on this and don’t come up with a new map. No election?

  12. “Take the former 12th district. It was a serpentine monstrosity more than 200 miles long but never more than about 20 miles wide, winding from deep blue Charlotte to deep blue Winston-Salem and avoiding most of the Republican strongholds in between.”

    Yes, take the former 12th district. It was originally drawn in 1992 by the democratic legislature to create a majority-minority district even though the state was only 22% black. It’s shocking, just shocking, that it required a serpentine monstrosity (it’s even longer, skinnier, and more serpentine than the version recently struck down) that avoided Republican areas to create a majority-minority district. The notion that the Democrats created the former 12th district as a vote sink for democratic voters is simply laughable, but it is exactly the kind of ignorance and incoherence that plagues discussions of gerrymandering.

  13. My alternative:

    Every district elects the top three vote-getters.

    Each legislator proxies however many votes they got in the election.

    All voters can check a box to be a volunteer legislator.

    Each district also elects one of the volunteers, chosen randomly.

    The volunteer proxies either all remaining votes, or all who volunteered.

    All this eliminates the concern over equal population districts, and reduces the worry over weird gerrymandered shapes.

    Anybody owning a parcel on the edge of a district can shift his parcel to a neighboring district with fewer votes cast in the previous election.

    This final step tends to equalize and consolidate districts, and defeats gerrymandering as long as districts are not re-gerrymandered every ten years.

  14. Why does gerrymandering only become an issue when Democrats can’t use it?

    1. Er…Political reparations?

  15. Iowa does it about as right as any State I’ve every looked at.

    Iowa redistricting is by law required to be non-partisan.
    The redistricting commission has 4 partisan members (2 each from the major parties), and the 5th member elected by a majority of the four partisan members. The 5th member will be the chair, and can’t hold partisan government office, political party office, and a few other qualifications to help ensure independence (can’t be related, or employed by a member of Congress, or the Iowa Assembly)

    The commission is not permitted to consider incumbent residences, political data (voter registration, previous election results, etc), or demographic information and can’t be drawn to favor a political party, incumbent, or other person or group.

    Districts have to be contiguous and compact(both defined by law), and should respect county boundaries where possible.

    Iowa Redistricting Guide

    1. Damn, it says it right there in the introduction. Gerrymandering is unconstitutional and if a state does it the state risks having a court decide the districts.

  16. Eric Boehm: reliable voice for progressivism.

  17. Nuh uh not with the new and improved libertarianism, which is so short-term utilitarian that it makes a democratic socialist blush. Look at all the Trump love despite Trump being an authoritarian asshat with no manners and no remote instincts toward promoting liberty. But he will facilitate forcing women to give birth against their will, and that’s all that matters. For freedom. Gerrymandering, psh, small potatoes. Put Hitler’s ashes in a bucket behind the Resolute Desk if it gets us our libertarian end goal of Christian theocracy and plutocracy. These are libertarian goals right?

  18. MAGA!

  19. Think about this: There is nothing in the US Constitution which requires Congress to be elected by winner-take-all single-member districts, or prohibiting a state from choosing multi-member districts or an at-large delegation selected by proportional representation.

    Let’s also throw in that the current distribution of Congressional seats is way out of whack, due to the imposition of a 435-member limit for the House of Representatives. Granted, making the House truly proportional to the population would make for a larger assembly, but doing so combined with proportional representation would provide greater assurances that every citizen’s vote actually counted — and more diverse voices would be heard in Washington.

  20. Everyone is biased in some way, no way will this ever be fixed.

  21. The idea that classical partisan gerrymandering, engaged in constantly from the Founding to today, can somehow be “unconstitutional” is so ludicrous that it requires no serious refutation.

    That there are two federal judges who have jettisoned obeying the rule of law in favor of imposing their own personal vision of how society should be organized? That means nothing more than that there are two tyrants whose corpses should be swinging by a rope from the nearest lampposts as a warning to others who think themselves appointed philosopher-kings.

  22. I’ve just come up with a great system to make a district map. Have a bipartisan committee set up such that one side gets to come up with its own district, followed by the other side coming up with its own district with the remaining precincts, then followed by the original side, etc. Everybody will have the incentive to either come up with a safe (but not too overwhelmingly safe) district, or a packed district for the other side.

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