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The Dive: NC Republicans' new maps carve 'the Notch' out of Democratic support in District 7

From the recently approved North Carolina State Senate district maps, "The Notch" appears as the blue section of District 7.

WHQR's Ben Schachtman sat down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about the latest edition of The Dive, our joint newsletter. This week, it’s a look at ‘the notch,’ a conspicuous feature of the newest state senate map for the district which mostly covers New Hanover County.

After a brief absence, the “Wilmington notch” is back. The new Senate district map once again carves out one section of downtown Wilmington, lumping it into heavily Republican Brunswick County rather than the rest of the city. 

The notch was included in the 2012-2018 elections. Under the new map ratified Wednesday afternoon, voters in the notch will be designated to Senate District 8, served by longtime Republican Sen. Bill Rabon, instead of the much-more competitive Senate District 7 that Republican Sen. Michael Lee currently represents. 

Lee’s seat has been hard-fought in recent years. He won easily in 2014 and 2016, but in 2018 Democrat Harper Peterson claimed it by just 231 votes. Lee then took it back in a close rematch by just one percentage point difference in 2020.

Read this week's edition of The Dive from The Assembly and WHQR here.

Benjamin Schachtman: Alright, Johanna Still, thanks for being here.

Johanna Still: Thank you.

BS: Alright, let's talk about the notch. In this week's edition of The Dive, you've got a piece about the map of State Senate districts, specifically looking at New Hanover County. And over the years, when you look at the map of what is now State Senate District Seven, there's always been a little piece of New Hanover County that doesn't actually vote for this district that covers most of New Hanover County – it looks like a little notch has been carved out of the county, and voters who live there vote for a different Senate District. It's changed size and shape and location over the years. But it's back with a vengeance this year as part of maps that were recently released from the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

JS: Right. So the notch was in place between the 2012 and 2018 elections. And so this is for every two years. So it was in place for a while, the legislature got in some trouble with gerrymandering. And so for a couple years there, it was out of the picture, the notch was gone. So basically, why this is why we're talking about it now is that the notch is back. the legislature has been drawing new maps for federal and state elections. And the notch reappeared – as a political consultant that we talked to noticed first earlier this week.

BS: So – and this is because the legislators is supposed to keep districts for the state senate covering counties as best they can. But there's just, there's a few too many people in New Hanover County. So some part of New Hanover County has to actually be not part of State Senate District Seven and instead vote for a different state senate district. And that notch or that carve out has over the years shifted and moved around. It has included parts of downtown Wilmington, but I believe it also included parts of northern New Hanover County and the Castle Hayne area at one point. But this particular notch, at least from some of the reporting I've seen from you and others, looks like this is the most extreme removal of Downtown Wilmington voters – who tend to lean Democratic – out of this district. So what's the impact of that?

JS: Right, so like you said, they have to carve somewhere, right? It can't be a full county because of the size. And what the consultant we spoke to said is what they carved, you couldn't have made it more favorable to Republicans.

BS: Right, because those Downtown Wilmington voters are now voting in District Eight, which is mostly comprised of heavily Republican Brunswick and Columbus counties, which can effectively absorb those Democratic votes and still maintain a Republican majority. Now, when this has happened in the past, when past notches have been carved out of New Hanover County, the courts have taken it up.

JS: A court in 2019 ruled that - it was a ruling about lots of gerrymandering in North Carolina - but about the Wilmington notch, it said that it wasted the votes, basically, because you paired it with rural Republican Brunswick County, that's gonna go Republican no matter what. And so by carving out those voters and putting them there, it is wasting the votes. That was the courts finding and 2019. But there's been a lot of changes since then. Our legislature now is controlled by Republicans, the state Supreme Court is controlled by Republicans, the U.S. Supreme Court is controlled by Republicans. And so even though people are anticipating that there will be a challenge to the notch there's not a lot of belief that that challenge will be successful. And so it appears that we've got the notch its back and it will be used in the 2024 for election.

BS: All right. Well, Johanna Still, thank you so much.

JS: Thanks, Ben.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.