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North Carolina, New York will factor into which party seizes control of Congress in 2024

In this Monday, July 15, 2019 file photo, a state districts map is shown as a three-judge panel of the Wake County Superior Court presides over the trial of Common Cause, et al. v. Lewis, et al, in Raleigh, N.C.
Gerry Broome
In this July 15, 2019 file photo, a state districts map is shown as a three-judge panel of the Wake County Superior Court presides over the trial of Common Cause, et al. v. Lewis, et al, in Raleigh, N.C.

While Republican lawmakers in North Carolina prepare to redraw Congressional district maps for 2024, the gains they make could get offset by redistricting efforts by Democrats in another state, New York.

The parallel partisan efforts show how these two states represent two sides of the same gerrymandering coin.

In 2022, North Carolina Democrats enjoyed a fleeting moment of victory in the courts, and in races for the U.S. House of Representatives.

The North Carolina Supreme Court, by a majority of Democrats on the bench, had declared political maps drawn by Republican lawmakers to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered with excessive partisan bias, manipulated to effectively cancel out the will of Democratic voters.

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

Ultimately, the job of redrawing an acceptable map fell to court-appointed special masters.

"The one that gave us a 7-7 Congressional delegation," said Chris Cooper, who teaches political science at Western Carolina University.

Suddenly, after a decade of solid Republican majorities both in the state legislature and in North Carolina's Congressional delegation, there was an even split between North Carolina Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House.

But that map would be used for the 2022 midterms only, and later this year, the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly will get to redraw Congressional districts. And the GOP will likely get the map it wants.

Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has no veto power over maps. Republicans now hold a majority on the state supreme court.

The court's GOP majority reversed last year's partisan gerrymandering decision, essentially saying the previous court applied vague standards to measure partisanship in redistricting and overstepped its authority to redraw maps.

Chris Cooper — the Western Carolina University professor — said that could give Republican lawmakers freer rein in setting new political boundaries.

"They're going to have some guardrails but a lot fewer than they would have otherwise," Cooper said.

Chris Cooper, Professor of Political Science - Western Carolina University
Western Carolina University
Submitted Image
Chris Cooper, Professor of Political Science

He added that next year's Congressional races in North Carolina could end up going 10-4, or maybe even 11-3, in favor of Republicans.

The three most vulnerable seats currently held by North Carolina Democrats are Rep. Wiley Nickel's 13th District, in Southern Wake and conservative Johnston counties; Kathy Manning's 6th District, which includes Greensboro; and Jeff Jackson's 14th District, including much of Charlotte.

Cleveland County sits to the west of Jackson's district. As Cooper noted, Cleveland County is home to North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, who has announced he will not seek re-election as Speaker next year.

"There is some speculation that that district might be drawn for Tim Moore," Cooper said.

Republicans currently hold 222 of the U.S. House's 435 seats and could net at least another three from North Carolina next year. But just as Republicans in North Carolina can pick up seats by redrawing favorable maps, Democrats in New York could do the same.

"Democrats, you know, having 2-1 majorities in the legislature right now, have to be thinking 'It's worth it to us to have the commission fail,'" Shawn Donahue, who teaches political science at the University at Buffalo, said in a telephone interview.

New York's bipartisan redistricting commission, approved by voter referendum in 2014, was established to draw political maps, but Donahue said it's destined to deadlock since it's made up of five Republicans and five Democrats with no tie-breaking mechanism.

"To approve a map they have to have seven votes," Donahue explained.

Shawn Donahue, Professor of Political Science - University at Buffalo
University at Buffalo
Submitted Image
Shawn Donahue, Professor of Political Science

When the commission fails to agree on maps, as it did last year, the state legislature takes over. Last year, New York's highest court threw out the maps drawn by the Democrat-controlled legislature and a special master drew the Congressional map used in the mid-terms.

That turned what could have been a 22-4 map in favor of Democrats to a more even 15-11 split. However, if New York's highest court sides with Democrats and determines a new Congressional map is needed for 2024, Donahue said Democrats could once again dominate.

"New York has the potential to more than counter-balance North Carolina," Donahue said.

That means Democrats in New York likely are making the same calculations as Republicans in North Carolina, just how far can they go in drawing favorable districts.

As Western Carolina University's Chris Cooper put it, gerrymandering is not a Republican or a Democrat problem, it's a "people in power problem."

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.