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Fair Counties Redistricting Guide

Table of Contents
2021 County Redistricting Basics
What Does a Fair and Open Process Look Like?
What can be changed in 2021 and what can’t
Equal Population Requirement for Districts
Why You Should Care: What Your County Commission Does

2021 County Redistricting Basics

Here is a list of counties that are likely* to draw new district boundaries (redistrict) in 2021:

*Additional counties may be redrawn if the local board of commissioners (or the legislature!) decides to do so, or if a court orders the county to redraw.

Who redraws and when do they do it?

Now that the Census data have been received, redistricting (redrawing election district maps) is underway! Not all counties have to redraw. Only counties that have “true districts” are subject to redrawing. Your county has true districts if at least some commissioners are elected from districts where only district voters have a say in electing them. Some of the counties with systems that require redrawing have not seen population changes large enough to trigger redrawing. NC law puts limits on how far apart district populations can be (basically, all districts have to be within 5% of that county’s average district population). Those counties that have at least some true districts and that have district populations that are now too far apart have to get their redrawing done by Nov. 17 (the date set by the General Assembly for this weirdo year). New maps must be approved by the Board of Commissioners in time for candidates running for the commission to file for office for the 2022 election (filing starts in early December). Some counties have already adopted their new maps.

Citizen engagement is important to get fair districts. Earlier this year, one county’s commissioners were saying they did not need to redraw, but once citizens pointed out that their districts were actually too far out of line to be legal, they changed course and redrew their districts to comply with the law.

Three steps that you can take to be sure that your voice and the voice of your community are heard during the redistricting:

To achieve Fair Districting in your county, there are three basic steps to get fair maps:

  1. Get the conversation going in your community
  2. Ask your Commissioners what their plans are to redraw and tell them you want a fair and transparent process with draft maps and hearings where citizens can comment
  3. Organize your neighbors to go to the hearings and comment on the maps

It’s too late to change your county’s redistricting system for this year, but how they draw the districts is still important (if some of your commissioners are elected districty by district)

Here are the details for each step:

  1. Get the conversation going in your community
    1. Form a local redistricting team. Get together with local activists and community groups to be sure they know that your county is going to be drawing new commission maps. Form a local redistricting team to engage local residents in the process.  You don’t need a large group— 3 or 4 people is fine.
    2. Recruit organizational partners and volunteers as you go. (The FCNC one-pager information sheet sample lists examples of organizations to recruit.)
    3. Ask for Fair Counties Resolution endorsements. Ask individuals and organizations to endorse the Fair Counties Resolution, committing the Commission to a fair, open, and participatory redistricting process. Use the information sheet to explain why an open process is needed. We thank the Pasquotank Commission for being the first to adopt the resolution and Greensboro City Council for being the first city to do so.
  2. Ask your Commissioners for a Fair Redistricting Process
    1. Engage your county commissioners. Let your commissioners know you care about county redistricting and that citizens need to be involved. Just send them an email or, better yet, grab a friend and attend a county commission meeting. Tell them that people in your county want a transparent, open redistricting process. Before the meeting or during the comment period, ask them how they plan to carry out the redistricting and how citizens can be involved. Urge them to put a discussion of the redistricting process on their next meeting agenda.
    2. Recruit a commissioner to introduce the Resolution. FCNC has provided a sample Resolution and a recommended set of steps for the commission to follow in order to implement the Resolution.
    3. Push for Resolution adoption by the Commission. Be persistent! Let them know about organizations that have endorsed the Resolution, and any PR campaigns you’ve initiated, including letters to the editors of local newspapers, and online social networking initiatives.
  3. Continue organizing and track progress. Help your neighbors to learn more about the redistricting, why it matters, and why they should get involved in the 2021 County Redistricting (FairCountiesNC can help!) — and provide updates on progress/status throughout the 2021 redistricting process.
    1. Organize a local meeting with a presentation and discussion, where people can learn more about why redistricting is important, what community issues are affected by commission decisions, and how people can push for fair districts. FairCountiesNC can provide a speaker, materials for the meeting, and help in promoting the event.
    2. Track redistricting by the Commission. With your community team, keep track of what’s happening with the commission redistricting and keep the community informed regarding obstacles and progress. (See the next section that describes what a Fair and Open redistricting process looks like.)
    3. Keep pressing for public engagement! Continue to encourage your friends, neighbors and partner organizations to get involved.

What Does a Fair and Open Process Look Like?

County residents can influence whether the districts are redrawn out in the open or behind closed doors. In an open process, residents have ample opportunities to express their opinions on the districts, information on what the next steps are and how they can participate, and access to the draft maps as soon as they are drawn.

Ask for an open, transparent process that includes:

  1. A public announcement from the county commission well in advance of starting the process setting out the schedule and procedures for drawing and approving the county commission districts, including the criteria to be used in drawing the maps, who will prepare draft maps, the schedule for completing the redrawing, and how citizens’ voices will be heard. The process should specify that the state’s open meeting rules apply to any discussion of the maps, including any meeting where the procedure for redistricting is discussed, any meeting where the maps will be discussed or introduced (whether or not it is a formal commission meeting), and any session where commissioners will vote on the maps.
  2. Public availability of information on the redrawing, including access to census data online and map-drawing software (now available in free, easy-to-use online tools, such as Representable). Information provided to the public should be in computer-readable form (e.g., shapefiles and spreadsheets, not just images).
  3. At least one public hearing offering an opportunity to comment on the draft maps well in advance of their consideration by the commission. Better: at least two hearings, one held before maps are drawn to gather public input and one held after maps are drawn for residents to comment on the draft maps. Larger or more rapidly growing counties and those where commission districts have been controversial may need more hearings to ensure that every resident who wants to be heard can participate. An additional hearing should be held if the draft maps are significantly revised after the first hearing/comment period. All hearings should be well-promoted in advance with draft maps published online and in the major local newspaper. 
  4. Release of draft maps drawn by or for the commission and commission staff well in advance of scheduled public hearings and votes on new maps. In addition to the maps, the commission should provide a clear explanation of the changes proposed, why these specific changes were chosen over other possible district designs, how the criteria were applied, what other options were considered, and information on who drew the maps (or provided input). (Note:  conversations between staff and commissioners and documents such as draft maps drawn by commission staff or members are confidential–but you can still ask for them to be shared!)
  5. An opportunity for county residents to submit their own proposed district maps or other information that they believe should be taken into account in drawing the maps (such as identifying their communities and asking that they be kept together rather than split across two or more districts). Maps and other information submitted by county residents or outside experts should also be made available to the public.
  6. A website providing ready access to information on the redrawing, including scheduled events, commission maps, any other draft maps received from any external source, meeting minutes, as well as public comments.
  7. Handling of public comments. In addition to public hearings before and after drawing maps, the commission should take public comments on maps drawn in writing and online, make such comments available online, and respond to specific comments asking for revisions of the maps. Responses to public comments should be made before the commission votes on the maps.

What can be changed in 2021 and what can’t

  • The boundaries of the current commission districts CAN be changed to reflect population changes and other local concerns and MUST be changed if population shifts since 2010 have resulted in substantial differences in population between districts (a specific formula is used to decide this).
  • The basic structure of the commission cannot be changed before this year’s redrawing:
    • The number and type of districts will stay the same as it is now for the 2021 redrawing.
    • This includes how many members the commission has; whether the commissioners are voted on district-by-district, at-large, or using a combination of the two methods; how many districts there are of each type; how many members are selected using each method; and which residents can vote on the candidates for each position (see Commission Structure).

So, it’s all about the district lines! But the lines are very important! They influence which candidates win or lose, which party has a majority on the commission, and which groups are more likely to be represented on the board.

Equal Population Requirement for Districts

When drawing county district boundaries, the goal is to draw districts with equal population per commissioner, based on the county’s total population (not the population of voting age or the citizen population).  The law and precedents from past lawsuits set standards for how close to strict equality each type of district must be. These standards all start with an “ideal population,” which is just the total population divided by the number of representatives to be elected.

How close do the actual districts drawn have to be this ideal? In North Carolina, the permitted deviation varies by the type of district. Here is a summary for all levels of government:

  • Congressional: 0 (the goal is zero deviation or, in practice, no more than 1 person)
  • State Senate and House: + or – 5% (no district can be more than 5% above or below the ideal (or average) population)
  • Local single-member districts (county, municipal, school board): most seem to accept that the + or -5% maximum deviation rule also applies to local single-member districts.
  • Local multi-member districts (county, municipal, school board):  same as local single-member districts, but the calculation must be made on the basis of the district population per representative, rather than the total district population. 

District population deviations must be reviewed after each decennial census. If the 2020 census shows that the existing districts already are within the limits described above, there is no need to redistrict.

Why You Should Care: What Your County Commission Does

Your county commission makes many decisions that affect you, your family, and your community.

The chart below shows the main services and government functions overseen by the county commission

View an organization chart for a typical county that includes commission financial management and other internal management functions as well

County commissions manage an increasingly broad and complex set of functions. They set the tax rates and determine the budgets for key local services, from schools to public health to the county sheriff’s office. They play a major role in local development, from determining which proposed projects will get approval to working to address local challenges such as insufficient low-cost housing, drug abuse, and the response to Covid-19.

Funding for local schools is the largest item in most counties’ budget, covering the running cost of the public school system. County commissions also work to promote local economic development, tourism, and job creation, as well as dealing with the wide range of challenges that may confront their county, from weather-related disasters to environmental issues.

The following table shows the functions that county commissions must perform and those that they may perform, if they choose to do so and can find the time and resources to take them on!

What Do North Carolina County Governments Do?

Building Code Enforcementx
Deed Registrationx
Election Administrationx
Law Enforcementx
Medical Examinerx
Mental Healthx
Public Healthx
Public Schoolsx
Social Servicesx
Tax Assessmentx
Community Collegesx
Fire Protectionx
Land Use Regulationx
Parks and Recreationx
Solid Waste Collectionx
Solid Waste Disposalx
Tax Collectionx


County commissioners’ decision should address your community’s needs: funding your schools, providing public health services and many other local services; changing regulations when needed; approving projects that will help your community grow and create jobs, and setting tax rates to pay for community needs.