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Will your county have to redraw? Here’s how to tell!

Now that the Census data are here, we can answer the above question definitively. New, easy-to-use (and free!) tools, such as DRA2020, level the playing field between mapping experts and ordinary people, making it much easier for non-experts to draw their own redistricting maps or assess draft maps produced by county officials, for example.

Using these tools, we can also assess the current county district maps to see whether or not the new Census data shows that they are now too far from the equal population standard and therefore need to be redrawn.

Redrawing is only an issue at all for counties that use “true districts”—those where some or all of the commissioners are elected district-by-district and only the voters who live in their respective districts vote, not voters county-wide. (Counties that select commissioners at-large or use district-at-large systems—also called residence districts—do not redraw, no matter how their population has changed.)

Counties with true districts must redraw only if their districts’ population figures now deviate substantially from the new ideal district population. So what does “ideal” mean and how far from that ideal is far enough to trigger redrawing?

The ideal is simply the county population divided by the number of districted commissioner positions. Say the county population is 10,000 and there are 5 commissioners elected by districts (ignoring any elected at-large). Then the ideal per commissioner is 2000. This is true whether each one has his or her own district or whether there are, say, three commissioners in one district (ideal population 3*2000=6000) and 2 in another district (ideal population 2*2000=4000) or any other layout.

So, how large must this deviation be in order to trigger a redrawing? As with so much else in redistricting, the courts have settled that question! The courts have set a two-part standard for all local districts, including commissioner districts:

  1. No true district can have a percentage deviation greater than 5% from the ideal (in other words, it cannot be more than 5% above or below the ideal).
  2. The sum of the percentage deviation of the district with the largest population and the district with the smallest population must be no more than 10%. So, say the largest district is 3% above the ideal and the smallest district is 5% below the ideal, then the total deviation is 8%. That’s less than 10%, of course, so it’s ok–no need to redraw! If those figure were 6% and 5%, the total would be 11% and it would be time to get out the maps and pencils!

These two rules can be applied to the current districts and county population figures to see if the districts have to be redrawn. They can also be applied to any proposed plan to see if the districts are close enough in population for that plan to be legal. (It can’t tell you if it’s a good plan or not–just if it’s the population per district is in the legal range.)

Below is a fully worked example, showing two alternatives for a hypothetical 3-district county, one that is within the limits and one that is not.

Of course, there are other requirements for a legal plan, such as having contiguous (one-piece) districts, respecting previous court rulings, not disadvantaging a minority population that is large and compact enough to form the majority In a district, etc. This calculation does not address those, but it’s a start!

The Fair Counties NC team has used DRA2020 to see which of the 32 counties using true districts exceed that 10% top-to-bottom figure and have to redraw, and which don’t. You can see the full results in the chart on our “All Counties” page. (We’re still working on a couple of them.)

What should you do if your county commission needs to redraw? In North Carolina, commissioners draw their own districts. Some counties are also using outside consultants and/or lawfirms to advise the commission. But voters have a right to be part of the process, too. How else can you be sure they’re not just drawing safe seats for themselves or dividing up your community?

The first step is to ask your commissioner or your county manager what the plans for redistricting are. Will there be an opportunity for voters to have input into the process before they draw the maps, how and when? Will draft maps be made public? How can voters weigh in on the map?

The Fair Counties resolution provides details on what you should be asking for. So, if you haven’t asked your commission what their plans are, now is the time to start asking!