Population shifts will have political consequences

Posted December 16, 2015

Fifty districts--42% of all state House seats--deviated from ideal size by more than 5% in either direction according to NC-Chapel Hill's Carolina Population Center.

— A new analysis by the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill confirms what any pol paying attention to population trends already knows: the lines that define North Carolina's U.S. House and state legislative districts are in for a big rewrite in 2020.

"The rural-urban dynamic is particularly highlighted," said Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center.

North Carolina's rural areas are growing slowly or losing population compared with areas near big population centers such as Raleigh and Charlotte. At the state legislative level, that means Wake and Mecklenburg counties will be in line to pick up House seats – and political clout.

At the federal level, it means the state's 13 congressional districts will, at a minimum, have to be adjusted. Seven districts fell below their ideal size between 2010 and 2014, Tippett's estimates show. At the same time, "six districts, covering much of the state’s urban corridor, from Charlotte to the Triangle and down to Wilmington, were above ideal population size," according to her analysis.

Tippett offers a few important caveats. There's only a complete census count every 10 years, so estimates about how districts have changed are not exact. Also, while those estimates are pretty sound for whole counties, in areas such as Wake County and Mecklenburg County that are carved up into multiple legislative districts, the guesses about how quickly or not a district is growing are less precise.

That said, some of Tippett's data reflect real-world political results. Consider state House District 41 in western Wake County, which is one of the fastest-growing in the state in terms of population. The extra 15,176 people who piled in during the past four years may have been one reason that Democrat Gayle Adcock was able to oust Republican Tom Murry during the 2014 election.

On the flip side, redistricting is a zero-sum game. If some counties are gaining population relative to the rest of the state, others are losing.

North Carolina House District 27 in Halifax and Northampton counties, was "the slowest growing House district between 2010 and 2014. With a growth rate of -4.4 percent, District 27 also saw the largest population losses since 2010." That means that, when legislative maps are redrawn, more land area will have to be piled into the district in order to make up for the dwindling population, effectively diluting the legislative clout of those areas.


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