Those who pay attention to political minutiae know that North Carolina is the most gerrymandered state in the nation. Indeed, four of the state's thirteen districts made Slate's 2009 list of the 20 most gerrymandered districts. That compares to just three districts in California and two in Illinois. Slate included the infamous NC-12 in its list.* The Twelfth Congressional District, whose shape closely resembles the cartoon that put the term "gerrymander" in America's political lexicon, has featured in several federal court decisions on how lines can and cannot be drawn to create minority-in-the-majority districts under the Voting Rights Act.
Since much gerrymandering is done to carve out districts for minorities, it most often benefits Democrats more than Republicans; 17 of the 20 districts on Slate's list were in Democrat hands in 2009, including three of the four North Carolina districts. Indeed, gerrymandering largely accounts for why Democrats have dominated the Congressional delegation of a state that usually trends conservative in statewide races.
The 2010 election results illustrate the extent to which Democrats were successful at packing as many conservatives into as few seats as possible after the 2000 census. At one time in the run-up to the 2010 elections, as many as four North Carolina congressional seats were seen as possibly being in play. So what happened on Election Day? Richard Burr won reelection to the US Senate from North Carolina with 54.8% of the vote, but only one congressional seat changed hands. Renee Elmers won a squeaker over Bob Etheridge in NC-2 with a shade under 50% of the vote. Nothing illustrates how conservative voters were packed into Republican districts than these numbers: Excluding North Carolina's two African-American congressmen, the five victorious Democrat incumbents pulled down 54.7% of the vote on average while the five Republican incumbents got a whopping 70.7%.
Things are about to change. Last November, the Republicans won control of both houses of the North Carolina state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. In North Carolina redistricting is entirely a legislative responsibility. Democrat Governor Beverly Perdue cannot veto the legislature's map. The result: New NC Map Gives Democrats More Heartburn.
The new map draws Democratic Reps. Brad Miller and David Price together into Price's 4th district and puts Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell together in Kissell's 8th district. The first version of the map did not pair any incumbents together and the latest, and likely final version, looks substantially different from that draft and the current map. Tar Heel State Republicans attributed the changes made to the new map largely to the requests of Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield, an accusation he denied.
Butterfield's district is one of those subject to federal review under the Voting Rights Act which not only approves of gerrymandering but which practically mandates it in areas that have large minority populations.
A side-by-side comparison of the existing map with the two proposed revisions is here. Funny how North Carolina Democrats suddenly discovered the evils of gerrymandering when they no longer got to draw the maps.
While the proposed districts are still not compact and contiguous and the Republicans certainly tried to maximize their advantage, I think it promises some future elections that are more competitive than those in recent years. A good example is how redistricting will impact my congressman, Democrat Heath Shuler. Both versions of the new map remove the city of Asheville, a leftist enclave, from Shuler's 11th district and place it in the 10th district, now held by Republican Patrick McHenry. The old 10th district wrapped the 12th, isolating it from the rest of the state. The new 10th district sheds the conservative northwestern mountain counties to combine Asheville with parts of suburban and ex-urban Charlotte.
Needless to say, denizens of the People's Republic of Asheville have been up in arms, claiming that the move tears the heart out of the district. The evil genius Karl Rove must be behind this dastardly move.
From my point of view, Asheville may still be the commercial hub of the region, but culturally it's increasingly on a different planet. This is confirmed by the Where Americans Are Moving map that Forbes featured last year. While there has been a flood of outsiders into Buncombe County, there has also been an offsetting trend of people who already lived there moving to adjacent counties where there is still a more rural atmosphere. Newcomers may like to think Asheville is part of mountain culture, but to those who live in truly rural areas it might as well be Gastonia with steeper hills -- and better restaurants.
What's lost in the Democrats' uproar is the effect representing most of the population of Buncombe County will have on Congressman McHenry's political future. Our system works best if every elected official knows that he faces a very real chance of losing his job come next Election Day. If McHenry's district includes the city of Asheville he isn't likely to ever again win with 71% of the vote, as he did in 2010. Indeed, he won't ever cruise home with over 60% of the vote in a bad Republican year as he did in 2006. With Asheville in his district McHenry is likely to have eager and well-financed Democrat challengers every election cycle. Likewise Shuler is going to have to make some hard decisions. Without the base Democrat vote from Asheville he will need to do more than talk God, guns, and football to small-town and rural voters who didn't like the personal style of the Republican challenger. If Shuler wants to keep the seat after next year he needs to sharpen his Yellow Dog credentials on issues such as taxes, regulation, and spending.