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Overview of the Redistricting Process

What is redistricting?

Redistricting means redrawing the districts from which public officials are elected. Members of the United States House of Representatives, the North Carolina Senate and the North Carolina House of Representatives are elected by the voters who live in districts. Many county commissioners, school board members, and city council members are elected by districts as well.

When is it done?

Citizens in different districts have a right to representation in the legislative branch that is at least approximately equal. Therefore, representative districts must be redrawn after every census. The US Constitution requires a new census every 10 years. Censuses are always conducted in years ending in "0." Census data becomes available in years ending in "1."

The North Carolina General Assembly is required to redraw the US House districts for North Carolina and the NC Senate and House districts after every census. Once adopted, a valid NC Senate or House redistricting plan may not be changed during that decade. If the plan is not precleared under the Voting Rights Act (discussed below) or if the courts overturn a plan, then a new plan may be adopted.

County, city, and school boards who are elected by districts have the power to redistrict themselves, but those bodies are also subject to redistricting by the General Assembly. Those local boards must be redistricted by themselves or by the General Assembly after every census.

As a result of the lawsuit of Stephenson v. Bartlett (discussed below), NC House and Senate districts drawn by the General Assembly in 2001 were invalidated in 2002 by a Superior Court. That court then drew interim plans for use in the 2002 election only. The State Supreme Court said those interim court-drawn plans could be replaced by plans drawn later by the General Assembly. In 2003 the General Assembly enacted new House and Senate plans. The congressional plan was not affected by the lawsuit.

What rules have to be followed?

One person must equal one vote:

Each district that elects one representative to a legislative body is required to be at least approximately equal in population to every other such district. For State House and State Senate districts, the State Supreme Court has said that means that no district may deviate from the average district population size by more than 5%. For congressional districts, the US Supreme Court has said the test of equality is much stricter. The State Supreme Court, in its 2002 Stephenson v. Bartlett decision (discussed in Item 5 below), interpreted the State Constitution as having a presumption that all districts in House and Senate must be single-member districts. Prior to that decision, multi-member legislative districts had been common. Federal law requires single-member districts for all US House seats.

Consideration of Minorities:

The Voting Rights Act and court cases decided under it forbid drawing districts that dilute minority voting strength. For the 40 counties in North Carolina covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, this means avoiding "retrogression," or worsening the position of racial minorities with respect to the effective exercise of their voting rights. All 100 counties are subject to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which may require drawing districts which contain a majority minority population if three threshold conditions are present: 1) a minority group is large enough and lives closely enough together so that a relatively compact district in which the group constitutes a majority can be drawn, 2) the minority group has a history of political cohesiveness or voting as a group, and 3) the white majority has a history of voting as a group sufficient to allow it to usually defeat the minority group's preferred candidate. The totality of circumstances, including a past history of discrimination that continues to affect the exercise of a minority group's right to vote, must also be taken into consideration. These rules come from Thornburg v. Gingles, a landmark US Supreme Court Voting Rights Act case arising from North Carolina in the 1980s.

Impermissible Consideration of Race:

The General Assembly and its redistricting plans are also subject to lawsuits if considerations of race impermissibly dominate the redistricting process. This may occur when non-compact majority-minority districts are drawn in such a manner that traditional redistricting principles, such as compactness, contiguity, respect for political subdivisions or communities of interest, are substantially ignored. Where the Voting Rights Act threshold factors exist, a majority-minority district may be justified if it is tailored to address the threshold factors. These rules come from Shaw v. Reno, another landmark US Supreme Court case arising from North Carolina in the 1990s. Obviously, abiding by both sets of rules regarding race can be a challenge.

Districts Must Be Contiguous:

Under the State Constitution, Senate and House districts must consist of contiguous territory. By tradition, the contiguity requirement also has been applied to Congressional districts. Contiguity means that all parts of a district must touch. The district must not have any detached parts.

Division of Counties Must Be Minimized:

Article II of the State Constitution says that in drawing State House and Senate districts, no county shall be divided. In 1981, the US Department of Justice said that requirement was inconsistent with the Voting Rights Act, so the General Assembly disregarded it for 21 years. Then in 2002 the State Supreme Court in the case of Stephenson v. Bartlett said the "Whole County Provision", found in the State Constitution must be honored to the extent it can be honored, consistent with the Voting Rights Act and other State and federal precepts. The Stephenson decision for the first time said the equal protection clause of the State Constitution contained a presumption for single-member legislative districts, and that presumption should be a limitation on the Whole County Provision. The US Justice Department approved the Stephenson opinion and withdrew its 1981 objection to the Whole County Provision. The Court in Stephenson prescribed a step-by-step method for harmonizing the Whole County Provision with the other laws. First, the General Assembly should draw the districts required by the Voting Rights Act. Second, it should take all the counties with just the right population to be single-member districts and make them one-county single-member districts. Third, it should take all the counties that have just the right populations for one or more districts and divide those counties into compact single-member districts. Fourth, for the remaining counties it should group them into clusters of counties and divide the clusters into compact single-member districts, crossing county lines within the cluster as little as possible.

How does the General Assembly do it?

Redistricting plans, like other legislation, are passed by the General Assembly in bills. The bills are introduced and go through committees before they are considered on the House and Senate floors. To handle the bills, leaders of the House and Senate have usually named special redistricting committees that hold public hearings to receive comment from the citizens. From decade to decade, those committees have taken different forms. Once both houses of the General Assembly ratify a redistricting bill, that bill, unlike most bills, is not subject to the Governor's veto. The bill cannot be implemented, however, until it has received approval ("preclearance," as it is called) under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Typically, the US Justice Department reviews the bill to determine whether, in the 40 counties covered by Section 5 of the Act, there has been any worsening of the position of minorities. Alternatively, the State may gain preclearance through a lawsuit brought in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Once a plan is enacted by the General Assembly and approved under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, it remains in effect until the next federal census.

As they redraw districts, legislators will be urged by various people and groups to consider additional redistricting principles: "Keep communities in the same district." "Retain the cores of incumbents' prior districts." "Increase or reduce the strength of one or the other political parties." Redistricting is a complex and political process, and all of these motives are legitimate and traditional redistricting considerations. Ultimately, the voters, through their elected representatives, control the process.