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Advocates seek to make ‘communities of interest’ an important consideration in NC redistricting

For the first time, the North Carolina General Assembly is considering the characteristics of various communities as it redraws voting districts based on the latest census numbers. In so doing, lawmakers will examine geographic areas in which individuals have a commonality of shared interests that could affect legislation and should therefore be grouped together.

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Lawmakers haven’t announced the exact dates and locations of the hearings, but this is a list of proposed weekly schedules. (Source: NCGA)

What’s more, they could have some help in the process.

In anticipation of public hearings on the subject scheduled for September, dozens of North Carolinians have used Representable [2], a tool developed by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project [3] to draw and share their own maps highlighting their communities.

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Adam Podowitz-Thomas

Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, welcomes this development. He said the consideration of  communities of interest has helped residents elect candidates of their choice in many locales. In New York City, for example, members of two predominantly Asian neighborhoods in Flushing, Queens, argued that the community should be kept whole, including shared restaurants and community centers. This resulted in the consolidation of the two formerly separated neighborhoods in one district that elected an Asian American, U.S. Representative Grace Meng.

Podowitz-Thomas explained that preserving communities of interest can protect certain neighborhoods that are considerably sized, yet not large enough to become the majority in a district. He said the focus on communities of interest allows average citizens to engage in the redistricting process. Instead of facing the daunting task of proposing a legislative map for the whole state, the public can instead focus on where they live.

Podowitz-Thomas said some states have preserved different communities of interests in different maps. “Although you can’t represent all of the communities in both maps, at least they both have an opportunity to be represented in some meaningful way,” he said.

The concept of communities of interest is not new. A landmark decision on redistricting in 2002, Stephenson v. Bartlett [5]  laid out the first step in North Carolina’s redistricting process. The decision said, “communities of interest should be considered in the formation of compact and contiguous electoral districts.” And while the redistricting criteria adopted by the legislature’s Republican majority [6] for 2021 use the term “community consideration” rather than “communities of interest,” there does not appear to be a significant practical difference in the two concepts.

As Durham County Democrat Rep. Zack Hawkins pointed out at an earlier redistricting committee hearing [7], communities of interest serve an important function that no other item found in redistricting criteria can provide. For example, it would prevent the division of universities, like North Carolina A&T, a historically Black university in Greensboro.

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Christopher Kenny

“This redistricting cycle is the first time that we’re seeing across many states, including North Carolina, a focus on communities of interest,” said Christopher Kenny, a Ph.D. candidate in government and a redistricting researcher at Harvard University. Kenny said the development of communities of interest brings a new aspect to redistricting, but that is difficult to work with.

Kenny said when bound together, some communities can wield more political power in holding incumbents to their promises.

However, he cautioned that legislators could use communities of interest as a tool for gerrymandering by grouping only like-minded communities together in odd shapes, instead of keeping districts compact.

Kenny said the boundaries around communities of interest can be fuzzy and subjective — sometimes drawn near universities, churches and school districts. This raises the question of how to clearly define a community of interest when different people draw lines in different places. Some academics have suggested using zip codes to add clarity and objectivity to the boundaries.

Here are some communities of interests identified by the grassroots group All on the Line [9] as posted on Representable as part of community mapping drives. Policy Watch interviewed these map drawers to understand how they approach defining their own communities.

Historic Charlotte Southwest Corridor [10], Mecklenburg County

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Kendrick Cunningham is a community organizer and president of the Young Democrats of Mecklenburg County.

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Kendrick Cunningham

He grew up in the community of interest that he drew. He said he used housing and household income data to determine the outlines of the area.

“The Charlotte housing market is built on racial segregation, but now that segregation is being upheld by income levels,” he explained.

Many families in the area are Black and lower-income.

(The map shows a community of interest in blue, the Historic Charlotte Southwest Corridor. The dark blue lines are NC House districts. Kendrick Cunningham drew the map as part of an All on the Line mapping drive.)

Cunningham noted that the area is a food desert with only four grocery stores. With only a few common public space options, Cunningham said people gather at Enderly Park, Southside Park, Revolution Park, the West Boulevard Library, as well as recreation centers, like the Bette Rae Thomas Community Center, and even the Walmart on Wilkinson Boulevard.

“If you go to that Walmart, you’re going to have a family reunion,” Cunningham said.

Until the redraw of legislative maps in 2019, residents in the area had been represented by multiple state House representatives. Cunningham spoke of the missed opportunities due to a lack of representation in the past decade, such as the failure to expand Medicaid.

The 2019 redraw of state legislative maps still split the area into four districts. But with one district covering the main part of the area, community members finally elected Rep. Terry Brown, Jr. in 2020.

For the new round of redistricting, Cunningham said he’s interested in seeing progress on the $15 minimum wage, housing options and more grocery stores to lift up his community.

Summerfield [13], Guilford County [13]

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Martha Shafer

The Guilford County town of Summerfield is largely divided into four precincts, with three in the House District 62, and one in House District 57.

A lifetime North Carolinian, Martha Shafer ran for office in state House District 62 in 2018. She lost to incumbent Republican John Faircloth. If the municipality needs to be split for other considerations, she proposed a community of interest along Highway 220.

Shafer laid out some issues facing the community that she says militate in favor of keeping town’s west side whole: aging school facilities, a potential development of connecting Greensboro municipal water lines to the area — and a new tax district to pay for it —as well as new higher density development and a park with a horse-riding trail

“If these people aren’t kept together… If a representative only represents a slice of them, it’s going to be harder to get the representative’s attention,” Shafer said.

Murchison Road, Fayetteville, Cumberland County [16]

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Karla Icaza is watching the new round of local redistricting in Fayetteville closely. She is a resident of the Murchison Road neighborhood, which is lower income and majority Black.

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Karla Icaza (L) and Kathy Greggs (R)

She is worried about a new development in local redistricting: A “Vote Yes” campaign is asking residents to pass a referendum to alter municipal elections so that four city council members are elected at-large and five are elected in single-member districts, as opposed to the current situation in which all nine are elected individually. She is urging community members to vote no on the measure.

Researchers at University of Houston studied the tradeoffs of between the at-large and single-member districts. “At-large elections have been employed when ruling majorities attempt to emphasize the corporate identity of particular jurisdictions and to suppress partisan or ethnic factionalism,” the study [19] stated.

At-large districts were the most common way to elect local offices in many places prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which resulted in more single-member districts. The study found that “single-member districts benefit the representation of some racial minority groups, including African Americans and Latinos.”

“The [residents here] are already cut out, already not given information, already displaced, and already not being supported by the city, the county, the legislature,” she said. “The biggest worry is that they are going to vote “yes,” and then we are going to have to have these at-large representatives that do not represent the people.”

To identify the community of interest, she enlisted the help of Kathy Greggs, an activist and president of the Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Task Force.

Greggs said the Murchison Road neighborhood, currently in District 3 and District 4, could be combined if city council members were to be elected at large.

“When it comes to redistricting, the area is a little bit broader but guess what, the demographics aren’t,” said Greggs. “So you have this side that’s predominantly about 80% Black, but on the other side of the other district, you’re going to have more white — so how does this look?”

“Our concern is that the disenfranchised and marginalized people in the community will be gentrified,” Greggs said. With a $45 million federal grant, the city has planned to build more than 10 bike trails, racquetball courts and a plaza. However, she fears that the local community, mostly students, veterans and the elderly would not benefit from these services.

Rather, Greggs said she’d like to see the local representatives address the environmental concerns of the Shaw Mill that is no longer in use, as well as over-policing in the area.

She stressed that redistricting and redlining goes hand in hand in disenfranchising the Black and Brown communities. Instead of pushing these residents out, Greggs said legislators and local representatives should focus on building infrastructure and protecting voting rights.

Beech Community, Buncombe County [20]

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Brenda Murphree

Brenda Murphree, a leader of Indivisible Asheville, moved to the Beech community over a decade ago to live in the countryside.

“We have goats and chickens,” she said. “It’s not a big thing but we call it our little farmette.”

The Beech community is a mixed rural area, bound together by tradition and geography. Nestled at the end of a long valley in northeastern Buncombe County, once known for some of the richest farmland in the area, Beech is home to families who have lived there for generations, as well as city expats like Murphree and entrepreneurs.

Murphree is concerned about the implications of the redistricting criteria that allow precincts to be split when necessary. She said that although politically the area is very diverse, making it harder for politicians to slice and dice for partisan gerrymandering purposes, the community should not be split. She noted its geographic boundaries and long-standing traditions including its claim to be home to the longest running Fourth of July parade in North Carolina — as well as shared concerns, including broadband expansion, hold the community together.