Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Potential Political Implications of Legislative County Clustering in North Carolina

 by Christopher Cooper

What are the political implications of legislative county clustering in the North Carolina redistricting process? This is one of a series of posts involving the 2021 redistricting cycle in North Carolina’s General Assembly Districts. I’ll review some of the pertinent points before getting to my analysis, but if you want to get caught up on all of the details, I’d recommend reading these posts in the following order:


·      This post, written in September, 2019 from Blake Esselstyn gives a terrific background on the Stephenson decision and its implications for redistricting in North Carolina.


·      This piece from Jonathan Mattingly and his team on the quantifying gerrymandering blog explains the ways that the Stephenson criteria might be applied in 2021.


·      Rebecca Tippett at Carolina Demography has a terrific trio of blog posts on the demographic side of redistricting. The first explains the demographics in general, the second applies these lessons to the NC House and the third to the NC Senate.


·      Blake Esselstyn digs into the weeds and discusses the potential implications of one wrinkle in the possible Stephenson groupings.


Although there’s no substitute for reading the materials above, I’ll give a brief description of the takeaways that are helpful to understand what follows. Feel free to skip over this section if you’re well-versed in redistricting in North Carolina.




2021 is a redistricting year in North Carolina. Although the lion’s share of the attention will be focused on congressional redistricting (with an inordinate amount of attention focused on the location of the new 14th seat), the General Assembly will also be redistricted. Unlike our congressional delegation, the overall number of seats will remain constant at 50 seats in the Senate and 120 in the House (as it has since 1835).


Who Redistricts in North Carolina?


States vary in who draws district lines, but in North Carolina, the General Assembly draws these lines and votes on their approval. Notably, the Governor in North Carolina cannot veto these district lines.


What Does the NC Constitution Say?


Sections 2-5 of Article II in the North Carolina General Constitution lays out the basic requirements for redistricting, including the number of senators and representatives (50 and 120, respectively), and the requirements that: (1) approximately the same number of people must reside in each district, (2) districts must be contiguous, (3) “no county shall be divided in the formation of a representative (senate) district”, and (4) districts “shall remain unaltered until the return of another decennial census of population taken by order of Congress.” The second and fourth provisions are fairly straightforward.[1]


The population equality provision has been interpreted to allow a tolerance of +/-5%. Using the state 2020 Census count of 10,439,388 residents, Rebecca Tippett concluded that in 2021, the “ideal district size” for NC House seats is 86,995 and will range between 82,645 and 91,345. For the NC Senate, the ideal district size is 208,788 and will range between 198,348 and 219,227.


The “whole county” provision also requires some explanation. Although it sounds like an easy enough principle to employ, counties vary dramatically in their populations, so sometimes it is necessary to split a county in order to maintain population equality, as well as to respect Voting Rights Act issues. The prevailing case law comes from the Stephenson v Bartlett opinion from the NC Supreme Court. I encourage you to read Blake Esselstyn’s aforementioned explainer, but in brief, the Stephenson criteria say that counties should be considered in clusters based on their geographic proximity and population, and then lines can be drawn within those clusters (assuming they contain more than one district). The Stephenson criteria are unique to North Carolina.


When Will It Occur?


Census data have been delayed and will be released August 12. The official redistricting process will begin soon thereafter, although the General Assembly is meeting now to hear comments on the criteria and the process.


What Has Been Established?


This piece in the Quantifying Gerrymandering Blog lays out a number of different potential clusterings, using the Stephenson criteria and a series of potential the population estimates (again, actual numbers will be out on August 12). The logic and math behind the analysis can be found in this article published in the journal Statistics and Public Policy.


What Might These Scenarios Mean Politically?


The biggest political takeaway from these estimates is that there is still considerable uncertainty about what the new General Assembly maps will look like in North Carolina. There is, of course, the uncertainty inherent in working with population estimates rather than official Census estimates. In addition, the Stephenson criteria constrain mapmakers somewhat, but mapmakers still have considerable leeway in terms of which base maps they chose, and the decisions they make within each cluster. Each of these decisions could, and likely will, influence the partisan make-up of North Carolina’s General Assembly moving forward.


Given the number of potential clusters and the implications that follow from each, I won’t analyze each potential combination, but rather highlight a few places where the clustering decisions and the details of the population numbers that will be released on August 12 could produce very different maps. The goal is to give the reader a sense of what to watch for in county clustering and how it could matter for electoral politics and political representation, not to predict election outcomes.




Most of the clusters in the NC Senate will shift. Only two senate groupings (Rowan-Stanly and Greene-Pitt) are likely to be retained from the last round of redistricting to the current one. At the aggregate level, this will produce maps that will look very different than the current one. It will also shift representational partnerships and linkages significantly. 


Cabarrus county will likely be getting its own Senate seat (right now it is paired with Union County). Cabarrus supported Republicans for every partisan race on the ballot and supported Donald Trump by more than a 9 percentage point margin over Joe Biden. Further, only 2 of the 39 precincts in the county supported Joe Biden. In brief, the Cabarrus seat will almost certainly be in Republican hands. The key question, however, is how the adjacent clusters shift—in particular, there are five potential clusters where Union might end up and each one could have slightly different partisan implications.


Johnston county will also likely also be in its own Senate seat. Johnston is also a Republican stronghold by any measure; only two precincts voted for Biden in the 2020 election, but the county is currently split into three districts that include, depending on the seat, Sampson, Duplin, Harnett, Lee, and Nash Counties. Again—the specifics of these adjacent clusters will be key to understanding the likely political implications.


Currently, Guilford County is grouped with Alamance and Randolph Counties, but Alamance and Randolph will likely shift to another grouping, leaving Guilford and Rockingham paired together. Recent voting history demonstrates that Guilford continues to move towards the Democratic Party while Rockingham tends to move towards the Republican Party and Randolph is as close to the home of a Republican juggernaut as exists in the state (no precincts in the county gave the majority of their support for Joe Biden in 2020). Alamance County is a bit of a political Rorschach test—it leans Republican, but has a considerable Democratic base in some of the populous precincts that run through its geographic center.


Beaufort, Craven and Lenoir Counties currently reside within three different county clusters and will likely be combined into a single cluster. Beaufort leans heavily Republican; only two sparsely populated precincts supported Joe Biden in 2020. Craven county favors the Republican Party, but does include comparatively populous Democratic precincts in and around New Bern. Lenoir leans Republican, but did support Democrat Elaine Marshall for secretary of State and has a pocket of Democratic strength in and around Kinston. Certainly this shift, depending on the clusters that adjoin it, could create interesting political implications.


Presently, the aforementioned Lenoir County is clustered with Wayne County, but the most likely scenario for the future county clustering will place Wayne county with Wilson county. Wayne County leans towards the Republican Party in recent elections, but does include a sizeable Democratic pocket in and around Goldsboro. Wilson county is comparatively more competitive with Democratic precincts located in its center and towards its southeastern edge.


Another cluster will likely be created out of Davidson and Davie Counties, two counties that are currently clustered with Montgomery and Forsyth counties, respectively. Davidson county leans heavily Republican, although there are clear Democratic pockets of strength in and around Lexington and near Thomasville. Davie County is the definition of a rock-ribbed Republican county. This represents a potential shift in partisanship, again, depending on the shape of the adjacent districts.





Seven clusters, consisting of 16 districts, will likely remain unchanged. These include separate clusters for: Alamance, Davidson, Lincoln, Buncombe, and Guilford Counties. Hoke and Scotland counties will also likely remain clustered together as will Cherokee, Clay, Graham, and Macon Counties in the Western part of the state.


Both have been trending towards the Democratic party in recent years. Mecklenburg includes pockets of Republican precincts on its Northern and Southeastern borders and Wake has Republican precincts towards its Southern and Northern borders, so the details of the maps in these counties will be critical, but the fact that they are increasing is likely a positive development for the Democratic Party.


As Blake Esselstyn discussed in his piece on the “Limbo Bubble,” the +/-5% tolerance can allow for various maps that satisfy both population equality and county clustering rules. Choosing a House map that gives 13 districts to Mecklenburg County and 11 to a combination Stokes, Catawba, Rockingham, Yadkin, Forsyth, David, Rowan, Alexander and Wilkes counties (what Esselstyn terms the SCRYFDRAW counties) would almost certainly tilt the House in one partisan direction or the other by one seat.


It is also likely that Pitt County will move from its current clustering with Lenoir to its own cluster, consisting of two districts. Depending on the shape of these districts, particularly in and around the Democratic precincts in Greenville, this could represent a shift in partisanship.


In response to its population increase, Durham County, which is currently paired with Chatham County, will likely be paired with the much less populous Person County in the new maps. Chatham could potentially be clustered with any number of other potential counties. The political implications of this shift will clearly place even more legislative power in the Democratic stronghold of Durham.


Finally, in a shift in the Western part of the state, Haywood and Madison Counties will likely be combined into a single district, removing both from their current two district cluster with Jackson, Swain and Yancey Counties. This could have important political implications, depending on how the 119th district, one of the few competitive rural districts, is redrawn.


Conclusion: Maps Aren’t Everything, But They Sure Do Matter


Maps, of course, are not everything. Sometimes candidate quality, the events of the campaign, or some other element pushes electoral outcomes in a direction that’s not expected. Sometimes David beats Goliath, sometimes Appalachian State upsets Michigan in football, and even the Washington Generals pull out a surprise victory over the Harlem Globetrotters from time to time. But some maps give members of one party, racial, or ethnic group an advantage—like spotting a team a few points before the game begins. For that reason, anyone who wants to understand the shape of public policy in North Carolina in the future should pay close attention to the redistricting process. And, paying attention to redistricting in North Carolina requires close attention to the Stephenson clustering process.

[1] These, of course, don’t include the totality of considerations in the redistricting process (see this link from NCSL for more detail: https://www.ncsl.org/research/redistricting/redistricting-criteria.aspx )



Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He tweets at @chriscooperwcu