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Posted by on May 15, 2014

A Dubious Honor for North Carolina

America’s most gerrymandered congressional districts

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Crimes against geography.
This election year we can expect to hear a lot about Congressional district gerrymandering, which is when political parties redraw district boundaries to give themselves an electoral advantage.

Gerrymandering is at least partly to blame for the lopsided Republican representation in the House. According to an analysis I did last year, the Democrats are under-represented by about 18 seats in the House, relative to their vote share in the 2012 election. The way Republicans pulled that off was to draw some really, really funky-looking Congressional districts.

Contrary to one popular misconception about the practice, the point of gerrymandering isn’t to draw yourself a collection of overwhelmingly safe seats. Rather, it’s to give your opponents a small number of safe seats, while drawing yourself a larger number of seats that are not quite as safe, but that you can expect to win comfortably. Considering this dynamic, John Sides of The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog has argued convincingly that gerrymandering is not what’s behind the rising polarization in Congress.

The compactness of a district — a measure of how irregular its shape is, as determined by the ratio of the area of the district to the area of a circle with the same perimeter — can serve as a useful proxy for how gerrymandered the district is. Districts that follow a generally regular shape tend to be compact, while those that have a lot of squiggles and offshoots and tentacle-looking protuberances tend to score poorly on this measure.

Using district boundary files from the Census, I calculated compactness scores for each of the districts of the 113th Congress and mapped them so you can see where the least compact — and likely most-gerrymandered –districts are. Click through for an interactive map, along with detailed methodological notes for the brave.

Click through for interactive map »

There’s a lot to say about these districts, about who drew them, the factors that went into their creation and the electoral consequences. Here’s a straightforward run-down of where the most- and least-gerrymandered districts are.
1. Democrats won in nine of the 10 most-gerrymandered districts. But eight out of 10 of those districts were drawn by Republicans.

This speaks to the notion that the point of gerrymandering isn’t to draw yourself a safe seat but to put your opponents in safe seats by cramming all of their supporters into a small number of districts. This lets you spread your own supporters over a larger number of districts. And the way to do this is to draw outlandishly-shaped districts that bring far-flung geographic areas together. North Carolina’s 12th district, which holds the title of the nation’s most-gerrymandered, is a textbook example of this: It snakes from north of Greensboro, to Winston-Salem, and then all the way down to Charlotte, spanning most of the state in the process.

2. Three of the 10 most-gerrymandered districts are in North Carolina.

North Carolina Republicans really outdid themselves in 2012. In addition to the 12th district, there’s the 4th, which covers Raleigh and Burlington and snakes a narrow tentacle all the way south to pick up parts of Fayetteville. And then there’s the 1st District, which covers a sprawling arbitrarily shaped region in the northeastern part of the state. All three of these seats were won by Democrats in 2012.

Overall, the North Carolina GOP’s efforts paid off handsomely. Based on their statewide vote share you’d expect North Carolina Democrats to hold about seven seats. But they won only four. This is because an outsized share of the state’s Democratic voters were shunted off into the three highly-gerrymandered districts above.

3. Indiana and Nevada stand out as states with the least amount of gerrymandering.

In contrast to North Carolina’s Republicans, Indiana’s did a remarkably good job of drawing sensible district boundaries. The same holds true for Nevada’s Democrats, although with only four districts, the district boundaries in Nevada are dictated to a large degree by the state’s borders.

4. Maryland and North Carolina are essentially tied for the honor of most-gerrymandered state.

With average gerrymander scores of about 88 out of a possible 100, Maryland and North Carolina are home to some of the ugliest districts in the nation among states with at least three Congressional districts. In fact, North Carolina is home to three out of the top 10 most-gerrymandered districts in the country. Maryland is proof that gerrymandering isn’t just a Republican pastime, as the state’s Democrats redrew those boundaries in 2012. The standout in that state is the 3rd Congressional district, which is the nation’s second-most gerrymandered and home to Democratic congressman John Sarbanes.

5. Republicans drew Congressional boundaries in six of the 10 most-gerrymandered states.

In addition to North Carolina, Republicans drew district boundaries in Louisiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Alabama. Democrats drew districts in West Virginia and Illinois, in addition to Maryland. Boundaries in Kentucky were drawn up by that state’s mixed legislature.
Again, the payoff for Republicans is in the makeup of the state’s delegations: In those six states, Republicans picked up about 11 more seats than you’d expect from simply looking at the parties’ vote shares.

6. Gerrymandering is easier to get away with in more densely-populated areas.

You’ll notice that many of the highly irregular districts are clustered around cities and metro areas. When there are more people in a given area, partisans have more leeway in how to draw their districts.

7. This is what the 10 most-gerrymandered districts look like.

For a sense of just how ridiculous gerrymandered districts look, nothing beats a visual. I’ve listed the 10 most gerrymandered districts below.


Gerrymander index score: 97.09

Gerrymander index score: 96.79

Gerrymander index score: 96.15

Gerrymander index score: 96.05

Gerrymander index score: 96.01

Gerrymander index score: 95.60

Gerrymander index score: 95.16

Gerrymander index score: 94.96

Gerrymander index score: 94.63

Gerrymander index score: 94.41



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Posted by on May 14, 2014

New Coalition to push for ending Gerrymandering in North Carolina

Bi-partisan effort led by two former mayors

A new coalition is being created to take  on the challenge of ending gerrymandering in North Carolina.

The coalition, North Carolinians to End Gerrymandering Now, is being led by former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican and former  Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, a Democrat.  The coalition will  work to bring a nonpartisan redistricting process to North Carolina. The mayors agree that ending gerrymandering  will not only be good for North Carolina but  good for both political parties.

“Ending gerrymandering will ensure that no party out of power is marginalized without a voice, said Vinroot. “Taking politics out of the process will be an insurance policy for both parties.”

“North Carolina can create a 21st century redistricting process that creates fair districts that are compact and competitive,” said Meeker. “Ending gerrymandering will help boost public confidence in our government.”

The mayors’ first step in building the new coalition will be sending a joint letter to municipal leaders asking for  their support.

“We believe local leaders understand that ending gerrymandering will be good for North Carolina and that their support will help the legislature understand it’s the right thing to do.” said Vinroot.

Meeker added “Local elected officials have a good sense of what their constituents want.  By encouraging the NC General Assembly to set up a nonpartisan redistricting system, they will be a voice for the thousands of North Carolinians who want this change.”
North Carolinians who want to join the campaign to get a nonpartisan, data driven redistricting system in our state can go to to sign up or get more information.

They can also call 919-833-0092 or email the coalition’s staff at


Why North Carolina must end gerrymandering

  • In November 2014, 46% of the North Carolina legislative seats are uncontested.
  • In 2012, , 91% of the North Carolina House seats were won by double digit margins.
  • In 2012, 86% of the North Carolina Senate seats were won by double digit margins.
  • In 2012, 10 of 13 North Carolina Congressional districts were won by double digit margins.
  • In 2012, the margins of victory for 3 of 4 Democratic Congressional victors exceeded 50 points.
  • Since 1981, there have been 27 judicial redistricting interventions.
  • In 1992, Republicans won 50% of the vote for the North Carolina Senate but claimed only 30% of the seats .
  • In 2012, Democrats won 50% of the vote for North Carolina’s congressional seats but claimed only 30% of the seats .
  • Legislative support for redistricting reform
  • 54% of all current North Carolina legislators have either sponsored or voted for redistricting reform.
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Posted by on Jan 12, 2014

End Gerrymandering Now in North Carolina

Veteran Raleigh News and Observer state government reporter and columnist Rob Christensen, writes about the NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform’s perseverance in seeking to end gerrymandering now in North Carolina

Christensen: Gerrymandering in NC results in few competitive races

If distinguished international visitors – say from Belgium and Finland – observed North Carolina’s elections they would have a difficult time describing the state’s political system as a meaningful democracy.

The system has become so rigged through redistricting that voting in general elections has become almost meaningless. Take the last congressional elections – the first held under the new district lines drawn by the Republican legislature.

Although 2,218,357 (50.6 percent) voters cast their ballots in the 13 House races for Democrats and 2,137,167 (48.7 percent) cast their ballots for Republicans, the delegation changed from a 7-6 Democratic majority to a 9-4 Republican majority.

This is the kind of election that only a Vladimir Putin or a Robert Mugabe would love.

This kind of gerrymandering has also led to endless court battles. On Monday, the N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments on a legal challenge to the 2011 redistricting plan.

Democrats have engaged in gerrymandering for years, of course. But the Republicans have taken it to even more ridiculous levels. (The GOP was at least given a fighting chance. After the two previous redistrictings under the Democrats in 1990 and 2000, the Republicans won majorities in the state House.)

Backroom dealing

I have been complaining about our rigged political system for years when Democrats were in control of redistricting.

In November 2004, I wrote that the previous election was “one that an old-style apparatchik could appreciate: an election with one-party rule, little competition and sometimes – best of all – no election whatsoever.”

Or as I wrote in 2002, “the grubby backroom dealing, gerrymandering and judge-shopping in the legislative imbroglio has done nothing but feed public cynicism about the General Assembly, politics, the courts and democracy.”

It is a natural tendency for elected officials to create safe districts to help keep their parties in power, and to make it easier for incumbents to stay in office without having to explain votes to the public.

“It’s like in the DNA of politicians,” former U.S. Rep. Bill Cobey, a former state GOP chairman, said back in 2006. “If they have an opponent – it could be like Humpty Dumpty – it will scare them to death.

“North Carolina’s voters deserve choice in who they elect,” Cobey said. “But come November, most voters won’t have a choice. There is something wrong with democracy in our state.”

Cobey made his comments at a time when the bipartisan N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform launched its campaign in 2006 to persuade the then Democratic-controlled legislature to create a nonpartisan independent redistricting commission such as exists now in 12 states.

Nonpartisan commission

The group is still at it. About 50 residents attended a meeting on a recent night at the Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh. It was mostly Democratic lawmakers who showed up.

When the group, also about 50 people, recently held a similar meeting in Apex, there was stronger Republican representation, including House Speaker Pro Tem Skip Stam of Apex, a longtime supporter of an independent commission, GOP Rep. Tom Murry of Morrisville, and a representative of the conservative John Locke Foundation. Art Pope, the Raleigh businessman, conservative financier, and budget director for Gov. Pat McCrory, is a longtime supporter of an independent commission.

The group is pushing for a nonpartisan commission after the 2020 census, when no one is sure which party will be in control.

A bill passed the Republican-controlled state House in 2011 that would require the nonpartisan legislative staff to draw up the districts with the legislature allowed to vote up or down, but not change it.

The measure stalled in the Senate, but Stam is optimistic that it will pass both houses once the legal challenges over the current redistricting plans are resolved.

Meanwhile, the coalition cites how uncompetitive our elections have become.

Only one of 13 congressional races in North Carolina was competitive last time. Ninety-one percent of the state House races were noncompetitive, and 86 percent of the Senate races were noncompetitive. In roughly one half of the legislative races, the incumbent had no major party opponent.

This is occurring in one of the most closely divided states in the country, and where the legislature is making major policy changes on issues such as taxes, unemployment insurance, health benefits and schools.

Rob Christensen

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Posted by on Dec 17, 2013

End Gerrymandering Now in North Carolina

End Gerrymandering Now in North Carolina

UnknownFormer Raleigh News and Observer editorial page editor Steve Ford attended our End Gerrymandering Now public meeting in Apex, and writes the following commentary.

Redistricting reform brings ideological adversaries together

The “peaceable kingdom,” where lions lie down with lambs amid other unlikely combos, turns out to be not so far-fetched when it comes to one of North Carolina’s most vexing policy challenges. While there are holdouts who enjoy their status as predators – or who don’t want to risk becoming prey –many conservatives and liberals agree that the state’s redistricting procedure is a mess that needs fixing.

Which group represents the lions and which the lambs? Well, let’s say that’s in the eye of the beholder.

Anyway, the outlines of a consensus spanning ideologies and parties were on display in Apex on the evening of Dec. 11. The NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform sponsored a meeting to build support for a new approach to redistricting that would defuse what has become a toxic cycle of smash-mouth partisanship. A key proponent, Apex Republican Rep. Paul Stam, was on hand to talk up House Bill 606, of which he is a lead sponsor.

Nobody would mistake Stam, the House Speaker Pro Tem, for anything less than a loyal Republican and staunch conservative. But he has been pushing for redistricting reform ever since Democrats ran the show in the General Assembly and drew congressional and legislative voting district boundaries to their liking. Since Stam clearly doesn’t want to be mistaken for a hypocrite, he’s making the same kind of arguments now that his party is in charge. That puts him in league with liberal-minded reformers appalled by how the line-drawing process has been abused.

A handy way to describe that abuse is to say that instead of letting voters choose their legislators, it lets legislators choose their voters. As several folks at the well-attended Apex gathering noted, that turns a basic principle of representative democracy on its head.

Redistricting is a chore undertaken by the General Assembly at the outset of each decade, after the national census. The goal is to adjust the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts to account for population changes. Districts represented by members of Congress, the state Senate and state House are supposed to be more or less the same size as others in the respective categories.

But that’s where the age-old, disreputable art of gerrymandering comes into play. Politicians can and do skew the lines to favor their party, powerful incumbents and themselves.

‘It’s our turn’

This state’s Republicans had long chafed at what they saw as rough treatment at the hands of Democrats who controlled the redistricting machinery for decades. So when they took control of both legislative houses in the 2010 elections, they set out to fix the Democrats’ wagon.

Specialists used computers to draw districts finely calibrated to maximize GOP chances. The basic technique was to group as many Democratic voters as possible into as few districts as possible. That gave Republican candidates elsewhere a big advantage.

The payoff came in 2012, when the state’s congressional delegation ended up split 9-4 in favor of the GOP, even though Democratic candidates took 51 percent of the overall vote. Legislative Republicans padded their majorities to levels where no gubernatorial veto could be sustained if party discipline held.

The packing of Democratic voters into certain districts also meant that many black residents, who tend to favor Democratic candidates, were given the same treatment. That has given rise to lawsuits claiming violations of the federal Voting Rights Act, which is supposed to protect the voting strength of racial minorities. Legal tussles involving redistricting and minority rights have been fought with regularity in North Carolina over recent decades – more so than in any other state, and another sign of how dysfunctional our redistricting exercise has become.

“Skip” Stam explained to his hometown crowd a fact of political life: Redistricting reform has the best chance when neither party can anticipate the outcome of the next census-year election. In other words, the temptation for a party that expects to win that election, and thus maintain its power by drawing favorable district lines, is too great.

In keeping with that rule, reformers in the state House advanced a bill in 2011 – nine years before the next redistricting – and won final approval by a bipartisan 88-27 vote. Besides Stam, who was majority leader at the time, those in favor included Speaker Thom Tillis. (All the no votes were cast by other Republicans.)

The bill went nowhere in the Senate. It was reintroduced this year as H.B. 606, gathering 61 sponsors (a majority in the 120-member House), but was not brought to a vote in the face of continuing Senate resistance. The Republican leadership there, under President Pro Tem Phil Berger, has been adamant in pressing to secure partisan advantage while it has the chance.

Fewer bug-splatters

H.B. 606 would delegate the drawing of district lines to the legislature’s nonpartisan professional staff. Districts would have to be “reasonably compact” and “composed of convenient contiguous territory” – a marked contrast from the wildly spread-out and twisted shapes, cutting across county, municipal and precinct boundaries, that now are common and that confuse voters and officeholders alike. Staff-drawn district plans would be subject to up-or-down legislative votes.

The bill also includes this language, which gets to the heart of the matter: “No district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent legislator, or member of Congress, or other person or group, or for the purpose of augmenting or diluting the voting strength of a language or racial minority group. In establishing districts, no use shall be made of any of the addresses or geographic locations of incumbents.”

Redistricting reform is an essential tonic to restore the health of a political system that depends on the honest competition of candidates and ideas. It would combat voter apathy and make officeholders more accountable. And let’s be honest: From the standpoint of those who seek to protect the interests of disadvantaged, vulnerable people – a touchstone of the NC Council of Churches – reform is especially important if it would curb undue influence amassed by those who show too little regard for folks who struggle just to get by.

Barring a court order rejecting North Carolina’s current district maps, we won’t redistrict again until 2020. That’s a long enough interval to comport with Stam’s rule of thumb – neither party should be confident that it’ll be in the driver’s seat by then. So let legislators, when they come to Raleigh in the spring, welcome their own version of the peaceable kingdom and join across party lines to give us voting districts that are fair and functional for all.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches. This essay appeared originally appeared on the Council’s website.

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