North Carolina lawmakers gave final approval to a set of new voting maps that are likely to boost Democrats' prospects heading into this year's election.
The General Assembly on Thursday signed off on newly proposed maps for U.S. House of Representatives, state House and state Senate districts.
The proposals will go to a three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court on Friday. The judges will have until noon on Feb. 23 to approve the legislature's maps. The court could also choose to implement plans submitted by voting rights groups or independent redistricting experts.
The congressional and state Senate maps passed nearly evenly divided along party lines. The state House map cleared both chambers of the legislature with strong bipartisan support.
Democrats complained that the state Senate map didn't address the issues the state Supreme Court found when it threw out a previous version drawn by the legislature's Republican majority.
Lawmakers have been under orders from the state Supreme Court to draw the new congressional map, as well as new maps for the state House and Senate, after the high court found previous versions of all these maps to be unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.
Three progressive groups sued over those maps, and initial responses from plaintiffs Thursday on the proposed new congressional map were not positive.
“Every successive congressional map released by [General Assembly Republicans] has been a bigger joke,” N.C. League of Conservation Voters spokesman Dustin Ingalls said on Twitter.
Analyses varied on how friendly the new congressional map would be to Republicans and Democrats. Senate Redistricting and Elections Chairman Warren Daniel, R-Burke, said the map would likely score 6-4-4, meaning based on past election results it would be expected to elect six Republicans and four Democrats with four swing districts.
Sen. Ben Clark, a key Democrat on redistricting matters, tried to amend that plan on the Senate floor Thursday with a lengthy amendment he said would result in a 6-6-2 or 6-5-3 map. Republicans quickly rejected the proposal.
Daniel and other Republicans said their proposed map meets metrics laid out by the Supreme Court and that it complies with rules the state Supreme Court laid out in striking down the old maps, which Republican lawmakers had passed in November.
“This remedial map reflects North Carolina's voters and political landscape, not a predetermined partisan outcome,” Daniel said in a written statement. “In doing so, our state will have what we believe to be four of the most competitive districts in the nation.”
Duke University political scientist Asher Hildebrand said the map is likely to give Republicans a 10-4 advantage in the U.S. House in 2022, an election season expected to favor Republicans. The map could go 8-6 in a more competitive election cycle, Hildebrand, a former Democratic operative, said Thursday.
Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political science professor and redistricting expert who served as an expert witness for voting rights groups in the lawsuit that sparked this redraw, said the map has seven safe GOP seats and four safe Democratic seats.
"[These districts] will likely be the subjects of an intense amount of electoral campaigning and strategy the likes this state hasn’t seen in a very long time," Bitzer said.
The composite results show six of the new districts expected to safely elect Republicans: The 3rd district, along the coast; the 5th district in the northwest; the 8th district, including part of Guilford; the 9th district along the state’s southeastern border; the 10th district, west of the Triad; and 11th district in the far western counties.
There are four apparent swing districts. Two lean Democratic by less than a point: the 6th district, including part of Guilford County; and the 7th district , the new Sandhills district. Two others lean Republican by about 3 points: the 13th, a new district including southern Wake, Johnston, Sampson and Duplin couties; and the 14th district, starting in Mecklenburg and stretching west of Charlotte.
State legislative maps
The Senate vote was 41-3, with Democratic senators Michael Garrett, Jeff Jackson and Mujtaba Mohammed voting no.
Based on 2020 election results, this House map could produce a tie in the chamber between Republicans and Democrats, Bitzer said.
"That doesn't take into account wave years, turnout dynamics, etc." Bitzer said. "But the relationship between previous year's election results and a future election result, especially in this state, is pretty darn strong."
House Democratic Leader Robert Reives said in a text that, based on a "very brief look" Democrats believe the House map is about 63-57, in favor of Republicans. Republicans currently hold a 69-51 seat advantage in the House.
Senate map divisive
The House bipartisanship wasn't shared in the Senate, despite a pledge at the start of the redraw process that Republican and Democratic leaders would work together.
Those talks broke down, leading to a party-line vote on a GOP-backed Senate map Thursday. Republicans rejected 10 amendments Democrats offered to the map.
Republicans said the new map comports with Supreme Court requirements, Democrats predicted the court would throw it out. Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, said the proposal was akin to "sticking our finger up toward the courts, snubbing our nose at them."
Garrett, D-Guilford, said the map was "conjured in secret, using the same old bag of tricks from last fall."
Republican leaders focused on one section of the high court's opinion, though, which said maps would be "presumptively constitutional" if they fell within a range of measurements embraced by the court. GOP leaders said the new Senate map does so by comfortable margins.
“We’ve done exactly what the majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court told us to do," Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, said during floor debate.
“Every single district cited in the trial court’s opinion was changed, and every single change favored Democrats," Newton said.
Democrats said the new map likely puts a ceiling on the number of seats they can win, capping it at 21 in a chamber of 50 senators. The Senate is split 28-22 now, in favor of Republicans.
Bitzer's analysis labeled 22 of the proposed Senate districts as either strong or likely Republican seats and 18 as either strong or likely Democratic seats. The professor graded 10 districts as competitive, with four leaning Republican and six toward Democrats.
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